Every well written program outlines all parameters including sets, reps, tempo, rest periods, and weights to use. It is easy to write out sets and reps, incorporating fun tempos to increase time under tension, and suggest appropriate rest periods. However, prescribing the appropriate intensity for yourself or client can be a challenging task for several reasons. Who actually knows their 1 rep max on a dumbbell bench? Have you ever done a true 1 rep max test on any exercise? Outside the few powerlifting meets I compete in, I rarely “max out,” so when a program calls for a working set at 85% of my 1 rep max on a given exercise, what do I take that 85% from? Sure, I can google 1 rep max calculators and find out an approximate weight to use but I’ll need to really make sure I stay up on logging everything. But sometimes this still takes valuable time out of my allotted training time flipping through pages to find weights remotely close to my 1 rep max. Outside of the bench, squat, and deadlift I don’t know my max so now it becomes a guessing game to prescribe the needed weight to elicit the desired training effect. I want to eliminate as much guessing as possible. Most people last maxed out their squat or bench years ago during their senior year of high school just before football season or have
never truly maxed out, so how can they safely load an exercise? Percentage based intensities are appropriate and can be effective for someone who knows their max, but very few people know how to do this.
RPE stands for rated perceived exertion and is a scale to gauge how hard something is based on how it felt to YOU. It has been around for years, especially in the clinical setting, and has scientific evidence supporting it as a great tool to prescribe loads and weights on exercises. RPE allows us as coaches and trainers to prescribe intensities and weights without having to use percentages. There are two versions of RPEs out there, but we will use the modified scale that rates difficulty from 1 to 10, which is the same scale you have probably seen before. When you go to the ER, the doctor will likely ask you to rate your pain: 1 if there’s no pain and 10 if it’s unbearable. RPE works the same way except instead of pain, replace it with exertion. 1 means easy and not challenging and 10 means maximal effort. So, in a program that uses RPE, you may see something like 4 sets of 6 reps at RPE 8. This means you should be able to do 2 more reps with the weight you are using for 6 reps. If we prescribe 4 sets of 6 reps at RPE 10 then you shouldn’t be able to do another rep for that set of 6. RPE 10 means no more reps. RPE 9 means you could have done 1 more rep. RPE 8 indicates 2 more reps. RPE 7 means you could have done 3 more reps. RPE is a great way to auto regulate the weight. Life can stress us out and when you add stress, lack of sleep, or lack of proper nutrition, it can affect how weights feel. For instance, 80% of my 1 rep max may feel light and easy one week but the next week after a poor night’s sleep, it may feel like 90% of my 1 rep. This can cause injuries and really fatigue my nervous system, which is not conducive for long term adherence to exercise. RPE is a simple way to prevent that by keeping intensity prescription constant and adaptable to how you feel and how the weights feel. It takes practice and for it to work effectively you must be completely honest with perceived exertion. If you miss it by one RPE value, no worries, note it and make an adjustment the following week. You will become better at being self-aware and how weights feel. -Cason