Should You Use RPE?

There’s a good amount of debate concerning the merits of using RPE (rate of perceived exertion) as way to choose weights in the gym. The main fear about RPE is a legitimate one, namely that people will often overestimate their exertion. Unfortunately I can’t find a link to the exact study, but I heard about it via the 3DMJ podcast. Essentially, they had someone complete a 10rm on leg extensions. They then took the reigns and told the subject to keep going, and the subject ended up doing another 8 reps.

The clear problem here: the lift that the subject thought was an RPE10 was likely not even strenuous enough to be considered a working set, given they had 8 reps left in the tank and hypertrophy (and strength gains) seems to occur most reliably at =<4 RIR/RPE6.

The extrapolation made by some is such: if an athlete is so wildly incapable of gauging their own exertion, shouldn’t we only use percentages so they don’t cheat themselves out of progress?

Yeah, maybe.

The meme response: It depends.

But really, let’s think about it. It takes some honest assessment, whether it’s assessing yourself or your client and the fitness for using RPE.

1) Are you lazy?

Let’s just get real honest off the bat. Are you lazy and often looking for excuses not to push yourself? Do you find yourself commonly thinking, “Well, man, I didn’t get much sleep last night, my breakfast was a little cold, and Mars is in retrograde. Better take it easy today.”?

Obviously there’s some legitimate reasons to take it easy. But good Lord, man, really consider whether or not you are just lazy! The best thing you can do is reckon with reality as it is, especially if you want to progress in anything. If you find yourself making excuses often, you’re likely better off going with percentage based training. At least then you’ll know if you’re being lazy rather than playing the mind games of, “No, that really was an RPE 9 single at 75%!”

2) Are you perceptive?

There are some people in this life that have the perception of a potato. You can’t help it, it’s just kind of how it is. You start to notice difficulty when your callous rips and your eyes start bleeding, and even then you’re looking at your buddy with a straight face and saying it’s an 8 with a misgroove.

On the other hand, there’s the type of person who thinks their 50% single is a grinder. And their subsequent 60%, 70%, and 80%, despite all of them moving at light speed. If we let this person pick their weight based on perception, they will slowly wither away.

3) Do you have a monumentally large ego?

And finally, the last person I can think of that shouldn’t use RPE: the egomaniac that screams every time they touch a barbell. Yes, we see you, no, we don’t care.

If your ego gets in the way of safety, ex. you think you had one more in you when I was able to see 3 bulging discs through your scared-cat back on a deadlift, then you probably have no business using RPE. You need to drop the Ed Hardy shirts and get a coach that cares about whether or not you’re going to put yourself in a wheelchair within the next five years.

So who should use it?

If you don’t fall into the previous categories directly or tangentially, you’re a great candidate for RPE!

There’s some interesting studies suggesting it might work better for increasing 1RM. It’s not conclusive, but it’s interesting enough to give it a shot. I think it’s a good idea to use a mix of percentages and RPE, where RPE determines where on the spectrum you land with possible weight choices. I’ll often give weight projections, ex. if it’s a set of 6 squats for a top set, I’ll say hit anywhere between 80% to 89%. It’s a rather large range, but it takes into account days where you legitimately have physical side effects that prevent you from being at your best in addition to days where you feel amazing. I’m assuming someone will hit between 83-86% on any given day for a set of 6. A three percent variance either way is not too unrealistic, and perhaps the high end is even higher.

So my advice? Give yourself a percentage range, determine how you’re feeling based on how the warmups move (is your form on point, is the weight moving quickly enough, are you controlling the weight properly), then adjust what to aim for based off of those.

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