How To Rate RPE
Using RPE to help auto-regulate training has become a very popular trend within powerlifting, and for good reason. It can be highly beneficial in allowing a lifter to progress in an appropriate manner based on strength gain, or the opposite, allow a lifter to down-regulate their training when strength just isn’t there on the day. But it is also very misunderstood, and many people fear the thought of RPE as it puts a sense of responsibility on the lifter to accurately determine the appropriate loading for the day. So to help calm these fears, I thought I’d put together a checklist for different ways to choose the appropriate load, how to accurately rate RPE as best as possible, and how to best use auto-regulation to your advantage.
1.) First and foremost, understand RPE is a subjective rating that is a range. The fear of RPE comes a lot from lifter’s thinking they need to be perfectly accurate. But when I program @ 7 RPE for a lifter, I like to think of that as more of a guiding range. Really anything with 6.5-7.5 is very acceptable, and anything within 6-8 RPE is still within the general training stimulus we are looking for on the day. Now as you get experienced, the goal is to become more accurate, but if you are just starting to utilize RPE don’t fear these small deviations. Instead, use RPE as a guiding range to help develop your ability to subjectively rate how many reps you have left in the tank.
2.) To piggy back off point #1, a good practice for lifter’s who are just starting to utilize RPE is to also prescribe a range of weight to use. So if I program a single @ 7 RPE for a lifter with squat max of 500lbs., the objective load based off coinciding %’s would be 445lbs. But to allow for a range of 6.5-7.5 RPE, we could give the option of a weight within 435lbs. to 455lbs. based on how they feel that day. You just have to be careful to not use this crutch for too long. As you become more experienced learn to make those judgement calls rather than having these guidelines of weights.
3.) Your biggest tool for gauging your top set RPE for the day is your warm-ups. Typically all of us have a habitual last warmup we take before our top set or working sets, and for the purpose of this article let’s say that is 405lbs. Every squat session you hit 405lbs. and you know exactly what it feels like on a good day versus a bad day. Take that knowledge and then make your best educated guess on what weight to choose for the RPE top set. And let’s put an emphasis on educated guess, as that is what it is. It not some solidified guaranteed number that will always be perfectly accurate. It will instead be your best subjective estimate of what you can do for that day. Let’s say last week you hit a top single of 445lbs. @ 7 RPE, but this week 405lbs. moved better than last week. You have another top single @ 7 RPE this week, so based off of that information you can make an educated guess that you could add 5-10lbs. over last week’s single. Or maybe 405lbs. didn’t move that great, or maybe just moved about the same as it did last week. Then maybe a range of somewhere around 435-445lbs. will be best. Too often people only see RPE as a means to regulate up, but also understand it’s a way to regulate down. Your 1RM fluctuates daily, and that’s not a negative, that is just lifting. So use RPE to adjust accordingly and you’ll see the best results from it.
4.) So now you have chosen a weight and hit your top set, how do you rate it? I am going off of the assumption that if you are reading this, you understand that RPE coincides with reps left in the tank. If not, CLICK HERE and read up on that first. Understand this is a subjective rating you are giving based on how many reps you feel you could have done. Typically the best course of action is to make your best educated guess, and then use video to confirm or change that opinion. If you rated it a 7, and then watched the video and confirmed it was a 7 RPE, congrats! But let’s say it moved slower or faster than you thought. Do not just rely on video and put confidence in your subjective rating too, as the mental approach dictates a lot of what we are capable of. Typically if internally I rated it a 7, but on video it looked like a 6, I’ll then call it a 6.5. Or the opposite, on video it look like an 8 but I know I had the strength for more than 2 more reps, we can adjust the rating to 7.5. Use video to make small incremental changes or to confirm what you already know.
5.) This is going to be a general guideline, as someone’s velocity on the squat, bench, and deadlift is very individual. But for the most part, a 6 RPE looks just like every other rep you did prior, which is why it is hard to rate. Basically if it moved really fast and could be anywhere between a 4-6 RPE, they look too similar. This is where you have to really rely on your own internal judgement rather than video. Starting at 7 RPE though, we typically can see our first initial slowing of the bar. It’s very minor, but it is present. At 8 RPE there is an obvious difference, and maybe at this point we can see where a very slight sticking point is present. And at 9 RPE, there is a very obvious slowing of bar speed and an evident sticking point. While this is going to be different for everyone, I find this as good general guideline to use when taking your subjective rating and then using video to confirm or deny that based off of bar speed.
6.) Within a new training block, I usually tell my athletes who are programmed with some type of RPE training to be conservative on Week 1. Many times we are starting a new variation, new rep range, or a new accessory movement, so it is best to slightly undershoot to get a gauge of your strength rather than to be too aggressive. This then gives a good baseline to build off for the following weeks and to use the above points to make the best estimated guess for the correct weight and rate the RPE as accurately as possible. For accessory movements in particular, powerlifter’s as a whole tend to sandbag the progression of these more so than they would the competition movements. Let’s say we have Dumbbell Bench Press programmed at 3×8 @ 8 RPE, and Week 1 we use 100lbs. Barring you have some specific feedback during warm ups Week 2 that indicates you shouldn’t try to progress the weight, add 5lbs. Worst case is you slightly overshoot the RPE and then for sets 2 and 3 you can drop down to 100lbs. But that in its own right is progression. You don’t have to do 3×8 with 105lbs. to progress, but rather 1×8 @ 105lbs. and then 2×8 @ 100lbs. is a progression over Week 1. Remember RPE is a guiding range, and this is even more true when it comes to accessory movements. This doesn’t mean continually overshoot your RPEs, but takes those risks on your accessories at times. There is less risk to overshooting an accessory movement than a competition squat, bench press, or deadlift. So as a coach I’d rather see my athlete pushing progression on accessories and overshooting occasionally rather than sandbagging consistently.
7.) Which ties right into my next point, and that is overshooting is not always a bad thing. Now if your ego isn’t being checked at the door and you consistently are overshooting every week, that is an issue. But an occasional overshoot just means you have the right mentally to progress and take risks when you think the strength is there. Powerlifting requires progressive overload for strength gain, and progressive overload means you need to be adding more weight to the bar over time. A big reason people fear RPE is because they fear overshooting. I can tell you those are the people that maybe should be overshooting at times, as their mentality is to fear doing too much weight. As mentioned, let RPE be a guide and range, not an objective number you have to always perfectly rate.
8.) Lastly, let’s say you take that risk and you really overshoot that top set and that top set then regulates what your back off sets are. What I have my athlete’s do is notate the weight they did to the side, but then enter in the weight they probably should have done into the program to calculate the weight for the back-off sets. This is an easy adjustment and takes away much of the negative issues that come from overshooting. Now just 1 set was affected rather than the whole workout. Or the opposite, let’s say you greatly undershoot. Most likely in this scenario if it was a pretty big undershoot, lets say 1.5 RPE or more away from the programmed set, increase the weight and take another set. But remember RPE is a range, so if you were programmed an 8 RPE single and it was a 7, that’s within a reasonable range. And you have to take into account that RPE 7 single fatigued you in some manner, so the weight you could have done prior at an 8 RPE maybe now be an 8.5.