RPE for Tracking Workout Intensity

Author: Matt K Training | | Categories: Athletic Performance Coaching , Cardio Training , Certified Personal Trainer , Holistic Nutrition Coaching , Nutrition Coach , Nutrition Coaching , Nutritionist , Online Personal Fitness Trainer , Online Personal Training , Personal Training , Strength Training , Weight Loss Coaching , Wellness Coaching

Blog by Matt K Training

Earlier, I spoke about stress management as an important concept to integrate to avoid overtraining. Another way to make sure your energy well is full (or at least mostly full) is with a detailed training log. In this post I’ll talk a little about keeping one. The focus will be on a under-rated variable, rate of perceived exertion or RPE.

If you keep a training log (you should, if you want to maximize your training), you likely jot down sets, reps, intensity, and/or time, among other things. A training log can be a helpful tool because improvements, as well as performance decrements, can be identified over time. In addition, I recommend adding rate of perceived exertion, or RPE to each set or interval in your routine. The BORG RPE scale, the most familar one, strongly correlates with heart rate and effectively gauges exercise intensity during steady state exercise. Recent research supports the use of RPE to gauge exercise intensity for intermittent activity, such as resistance training. The idea is, upon finishing a set, the individual gives a rating on a scale from 1-10. That number represents the amount of effort it took to execute that set or interval. Here’s the scale:

RPE scale for intermittent exercise activity

  • 10 – maximal, nothing left
  • 9 – Near maximal, maybe 1 rep left
  • 8 – Hard, maybe 2 reps left
  • 7 — Moderately hard
  • 6 – Moderate, second warm up set, technique
  • 1-5 – Technique practice

This version utilizes a number range from 1-10, which differs from the original BORG RPE scale, mentioned above. Ideally, for resistance training, you want interset RPE to be 7, 8, or 9. An RPE of 10 is too high, and an RPE below 7 is more appropriate for warm up or technique practice.

Training log example

To illustrate, below is an excerpt from my training log. You can see the particular exercise (back squat), the prescribed volume (3 sets of 8 repetitions), how hard I should be working (RPE 7-8), and how much time to take between sets (3-4 minutes). Then to the right there are boxes, each divided in half by a diagonal line, for each of the three sets. In the top half of each box I recorded the weight, in pounds that I lifted, then in the bottom half I entered a number from the modified RPE scale, representing how hard the set was to complete;

So that 7, 7.5, and 8.5 in the bottom segment of the box under each set is my rating of the effort it took to complete the first, second, and third set, respectively. It is not the amount of repetitions. I don’t necessarily need to write that, I already know I am doing 8. Now let’s have a look at an identical excerpt a week later:

I rated my effort at 8, 9, and 9 for the first, second, and third set, respectively. Though I lifted the same amount of weight each session, the RPE differs between the two. The RPE scores I entered during this session are higher than the previous one. This means the effort to complete the sets in the second session was harder than the first. This revelation can be useful. If my RPE continues to be high I may need to adjust my intensity or training volume.

I want RPE to be at a 7 or 8, as prescribed, pushing too hard could put me in a state of underperformance. Without recording RPE, this underperformance would continue “under the radar” until I found myself days or weeks later lowering the weight or even skipping workouts for extra rest. The worst case scenario is that I overdo it and suffer an injury. Thus tracking RPE is more telling; had I simply tracked repetitions (which likely wouldn’t have changed much from session to session), instead of RPE, I may not have questioned anything until it was too late.

Once I am done, I can also use RPE to rate the entire workout session. This is called “session RPE” and it is useful, not only for monitoring effort but estimating workload. I will get into that in more detail in a future post.

To summarize, if I am pushing to hard, I want to know before my performance suffers. If I catch myself early, I can make adjustments to allow for recovery, if I do not, I run the risk of falling into a state of chronic underperformance, or worse, injury. From there I could be looking at weeks or even months to get back to my original performance capacity. Adding RPE to my training log is a simple and easy change that allows me to fine tune my training intensity and volume and thus have a positive impact on my performance.

Thanks for reading!

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Published by mattktraining

I am currently the Owner of my soloprenuerial company Matt K Training. Through my fitness and nutrition programs I help adults develop skills and practices that help them eat, move, and recover well. Over the past 20 years, in various roles such as a Personal trainer, Exercise Physiologist, Clinical Researcher, and Health Coach I have helped hundreds of adults reach their health and physical performance goals. When not working, I enjoy active pursuits such as playing right field for the Charlton Giants (in a 38+ competitive baseball league), playing tennis, hiking, backpacking, and rock climbing. I also enjoy indoor activities such as playing strategy board games, reading and discussing science fiction literature, dabbling with my guitar, finding creative ways to eat oatmeal, and being a good dad.