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.