Long Live RPE: What is it and why do we use it?
Rate of perceived exertion (RPE) is an accepted and effective method for gauging effort in most exercises. It can be used for a variety of modalities (cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, neuromuscular, etc.). In this article, we will share with you two different charts for RPE and how the different levels might be explained depending on the type of exercises you perform.
So why do we use it?
Because effort is relative. The body is affected by a wide variety of inputs, some good and some bad, all of which affect its ability to perform. When it comes to peak performance, we typically are placing demands on the body that require optimal conditions: proper nutrition, hydration and sleep, ideal temperature, zero external stressors, peace of mind…we can dream, right?
Rarely when you’re in the gym are you operating under these conditions. Typically, at least one of those variables (if not multiples of them) is not optimal which will affect your performance. SO, if you come into the gym and you’re supposed to Back Squat 85% of your 1RM for 3 x 3 and you are off, more than likely you’re going to feel (slightly) defeated. We, your coaches, set the expectation that you should have been able to hit that weight for that volume today and you couldn’t. To me, that doesn’t sound very motivational. The demands are unrealistic given your reality.
Similar scenario, you’re a little off today but the board says Back Squat RPE of 8 for 3 x 3. Cool! I’m going to work up to a weight that I feel I could perform 3 solid back squats plus a few more reps and repeat for 3 total sets. The RPE allows you to dictate based on your reality. This can skew the other way too - maybe you come in feeling really really good! You’re able to load the bar up to something closer to 90% but it feels like an RPE of 8 today because you slept well, ate well and crushed it at the office today. Adrenaline is flowing and you’re going to ride that wave!
This is why we use it. And these graphics should give it some context. The first one (below) shows RPE as it relates to cardiovascular exercise. In CrossFit, we’d refer to these as our “metcons” and sometimes we prescribe an RPE for a specific element (i.e. Bike for 0:60 @ RPE 7). From this chart, we see that an RPE of 7 on the bike should leave us short of breath but can speak a full sentence.
In the second graphic (below), we see the RPE chart for weightlifting. You can see how those sets of 3 from our earlier back squat example that the weight should be such that you definitely could have done two more reps on each set.
It’s my hope that these charts and this post can help shed some light on that mysterious RPE you keep hearing about and seeing in classes. This is the direction that most prescription based exercise is trending towards, acknowledging the relativity of each individual to perform on any given day.
Metcon - 4 Rounds for effort:
0:30 second assault bike sprint*
0:60 second front rack hold @ light to moderate
21 Russian KB swings @ moderate
-REST 2:30 between rounds-
22 minute cap
*Athletes may choose to use the ski erg if their coach agrees.
Front rack weight should top out ~115/85. Athletes should have the goal to maintain good position in the hold for the entire minute each round. If you are unsure what to use, talk to a coach. Consider the same idea with the KB weight too - pick something you can move efficiently and effectively for 4 sets of 21 unbroken KB swings.