You’ll hear this over and over during your session, ”How did that set feel?” Lots of ways to ask the question, but ultimately we’re all getting at the same thing. Was that hard enough? Making progress in the studio is about balancing work load and rest in a way that keeps you safe and allows you to get the most out of the time you put into your training. So the next time you’re asked that question, instead of saying “fine” (which means “more weight please”), think about your answer in terms of RPE.

What is RPE

RPE means Rating of Perceived Exertion. Simply put, it’s how hard you think you’re working. A 10 means you’re done, there are no more good reps. We hardly ever push to 10 around here, the closer you get to 10 the more risk for injury and the longer you need to recover. RPE 5 is really easy, you can feel something, but you don’t get tired. We hardly ever work at RPE 5 (maybe a warm up) because it simply doesn’t provide enough stimulus to make change. RPE 7 – 8 – 9 is really where the magic starts to happen. You get enough stimulus to create muscle adaptation but decrease risk of injury or sloppy reps. Finding RPE 7-8-9 can be tricky, especially if you’re newer to exercise. Here’s a couple ways to evaluate a set and determine how hard you’re really working.

Reps in Reserve

Here’s the question, “how many reps do you think you have left?” When the set was over, judging the number of CLEAN reps you had left is a measure called Reps in Reserve. If you could not have done one more GOOD rep, well, that’s a 10. But if you feel strongly you had 2 good reps left, that’s likely an RPE 8. And if you feel like you had 4 or more good reps, then you’re going to get more weight! With the exception of warm up sets, most sets should be in that 7/8/9 RPE range, meaning you wouldn’t have more than 2 or 3 reps in reserve. The more you think about this and discuss with your trainer, the more it will make sense and you’ll start getting a lot more out of your workouts.

Rep Cadence

Another interesting way to judge intensity is through rep cadence, or the speed you move the weight. In simple terms, if the speed stays consistent the whole set (reps 1 through 10 for example) then the RPE has to be 7 or lower. Good warm up, not really enough to stimulate change. If the weight slows down for the last couple reps, you’re likely in the magic RPE 8 range. If every rep is a different speed, takes tons of focus, you’re in that 9/10 range.

Putting it all together

It’s critical, regardless of age, goals or exercise experience that you’re working hard enough when you workout. Adding intensity through progressive overload can be weight, number of sets and/or reps, the tempo you use (time under tension) or decreased rest periods. But it has to be hard enough to make changes. Having the conversation with your trainer, being honest about your efforts and challenging yourself to push harder intensities will pay off with huge dividends as you go along.

Why does RPE matter so much? Because 9 out of 10 of you reached out to us because you wanted to improve lean muscle mass as one of your top two goals. And to build muscle you have to provide adequate input, rest, nutrition to make it happen. Pick the right exercises, perform those exercises with hard enough efforts, recover well, and be consistent. It really is as straightforward as that.


Hyatt Strength + Wellness is a team of certified, enthusiastic and innovative personal trainers in Portland, Oregon. Get in touch with us by emailing Go@HyattTraining.com.


Sources

Haff, G. G., &; Triplett, N. T. (2016). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Human Kinetics.

Helms, E. R., Brown, S. R., Cross, M. R., Storey, A., Cronin, J., & Zourdos, M. C. (2017). Self-Rated Accuracy of Rating of Perceived Exertion-Based Load Prescription in Powerlifters. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 31(10), 2938–2943. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000002097

Helms, E. R., Cronin, J., Storey, A., & Zourdos, M. C. (2016). Application of the Repetitions in Reserve-Based Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale for Resistance Training. Strength and conditioning journal, 38(4), 42–49. https://doi.org/10.1519/SSC.0000000000000218

Odgers, J. B., Zourdos, M. C., Helms, E. R., Candow, D. G., Dahlstrom, B., Bruno, P., & Sousa, C. A. (2021). Rating of Perceived Exertion and Velocity Relationships Among Trained Males and Females in the Front Squat and Hexagonal Bar Deadlift. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 35(Suppl 1), S23–S30. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000003905

Zourdos, M. C., Goldsmith, J. A., Helms, E. R., Trepeck, C., Halle, J. L., Mendez, K. M., Cooke, D. M., Haischer, M. H., Sousa, C. A., Klemp, A., & Byrnes, R. K. (2021). Proximity to Failure and Total Repetitions Performed in a Set Influences Accuracy of Intraset Repetitions in Reserve-Based Rating of Perceived Exertion. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 35(Suppl 1), S158–S165. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000002995