Neuromuscular Training Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE)
Rating of Perceived Exertion or RPE/R.P.E. is commonly associated with endurance training.
Typically in that context, it’s put on a Borg Scale. A scale of 6-20, with 6 being no exertion at all and 20 being maximal exertion. Like this:
I remember sitting in front of clients on a bike or treadmill with the scale on paper and asking them where they were. It’s more laborious than you might think, because who thinks of things in terms of 6-20?
What a bizarre scale to try and implement!
It’s traditionally used in cardiac rehab, and so a big scale might sense there…
For the rest of us, it’s a giant pain in the ass using such a huge scale, so the Borg Scale these days is usually a ‘Modified’ Borg Scale, which simply uses a scale of 1-10, with 1 being no exertion and 10 being maximum exertion.
It means the same, it’s just less numbers to deal with, and a lot easier to gauge.
What’s lesser known is that a similar scale of 1-10 can be used within the context of neuromuscular training too. This little lesser known approach can work wonders for you.
Note: You can actually do the same thing with percentage of training effort too. If you ever hear me say 80% effort in the context of weight training, I essentially mean an 8 out of 10. A small scale as indicated above is just easier to work with sometimes, but I find a lot of people conceptualize percentages better. C’est la vie, everyone is a bit different.
I suspect you could be as effective with a scale of 1-5 even and simplify it further but that's a debate for another day.
Neuromuscular Training RPE
Basically RPE in the context of neuromuscular training is still your perception of how much effort it took you to complete a lift with a given load.
It also loosely correlated to the the number of reps you leave in the tank. Or how many reps more you do if you pushed to absolute failure.
It looks something like this:
- At rest, could do this lift all day
- Almost doing this all day long, couldn’t say how many more reps I could do
- A lot more reps left in the tank, no fatigue, still hard to guess how many more I could do
- A lot of reps left in the tank, hard to guess how many left
- Five or six reps left in the tank
- Four or five at least, maybe more…starting to feel like work…
- Three or four reps left in the tank
- Two or three reps left in the tank (sometimes ‘technical failure‘)
- Last rep or two in the tank (might have to grind a rep or two)
- All Out, could not do any more than the prescribed reps with this weight.
You won’t be using a 1 out of 10. Ever really. I really doubt you’d use anything less than a 5 out of 10 for a resistance training work set.
1-5 is fine for warm ups or a recovery training day. 3-4 is actually a pretty good place for plyometric training too. Very little fatigue, but the speed of movement should be really high.
The better approach specific to lifting weights may be what’s called Reps in Reserve or RIR. I have a follow up article planned on that but I wanted to start with RPE so I have bridge.
Anything under 6 RPE will make it very difficult to qualify how many reps you have left in the tank. And RIR shows that the further people get from absolute or technical failure, the harder time they have qualifying the reps they have left in the tank.
Basically anything below 6 likely won’t be that accurate so it’s really hard to qualify 1-5 as how many reps you have left in the tank.
This means that RPE can apply more universally to neuromuscular training that isn’t lifting weight so it’s worth knowing.
Let’s use the common rep range of 3 sets of 10. You pick up a basic “program” off the internet that has 3 sets of 10 for pretty much all or at least most of the exercises it prescribes.
You walk into the gym, head over to the squat rack — forget about a proper warm up — and load it up to a weight you think you can do for 10 reps.
You stop at 10 but it felt a little light, like you could do a couple more reps, so you add a little bit of weight; let’s say 20 lbs. If I held up a scale, you might say a 7 out of 10, or maybe you felt like you could get 3-4 more reps up.
You rest for a little bit and attempt another set of 10, this time you can’t quite get 10, you do 9, so you take 10 lbs off. This would be a 10 out of 10 if you went for that last rep. *But you didn’t, so it’s really just a 9 out of 10, because that you intelligently shut the set down early.
Rest a little more, take a tiny amount of weight off and do your last set of 10. Nailed 10…barely…
You couldn’t do another rep at that point without failing and you’re spent. It might even affect the rest of your workout dramatically say, if you’ve got more leg work to do.
That’s still a 9 out of 10 effort to finish things up. Your own individual effort, or a 9 out of 10 on the resistance training RPE scale. You have two goods sets at 9/10, that’s an excellent effort on that exercise in any given workout.
*Shutting it down a rep early in this case is why it’s still only a 9 out of 10 RPE. Shutting it down early, even if you’re “supposed” to do 10 reps isn’t hitting absolute failure. This scenario helps explain why we only call it a 10 out of 10 if you go to absolute failure.
Distinction: Absolute Failure vs Technical Failure
Now all of this needs a little context, but only specific to lifting weights. Different people have different thoughts on what constitutes failure and therefore what is a 10 out of 10.
I just wrote about this: Here’s how I see it…
Technical failure is where technique starts to break down slightly, for example you usually lose significant speed. See the video in that other post.
Absolute failure is literally when you can’t do another rep and usually have to dump the weight at some point on your last rep, either it’s help from a spotter or the barbell is on the safety pins or something to that effect.
If you go so far that you can’t complete another rep, that’s a 10 out of 10 in my books.
Absolute failure means you can’t finish the set you’re attempting.
Now you can terminate a set earlier than that, if you don’t want to strain to push through. This is usually the smart move, something I discuss in detail below. Making a 10 out of 10 attempt means you’ll have to stop during your last rep attempt.
So even though attempt/set #2 in the example above did not complete 10 reps, the second set is still a successful set. 9 reps is close enough to 10 reps, but more importantly you trained to a 8-9 RPE (explained below).
That means you’re close to failure without actually completely failing.
Unlike Deadpool, you do not need to lift weights at a 10 out of 10. Ever.
In that other article I detailed out why this is an important approach whether you’re training for strength or hypertrophy. Also why you need to be much closer to absolute failure when training muscular endurance.
Hitting the point where you can’t complete a rep on a regular basis is mostly an incredibly stupid way to approach training.
In increases injury potential. It increases muscle damage. It encourages ‘grinding’ out reps. It increases burn out. It increases muscle soreness. It reduces the amount of work you can do later in your training session.
It ultimately slows progress in the short and long-term, though it may be a good occasional challenge.
It can be good to know your limits and to test them from time to time.
Key Words: From time-to-time.
Maybe a few times a year in lieu of some sort of competition, you might want to have your own little personal competition. Just to see where you’re at.
That means going to a 10. It means taking things so far that you might miss reps. Missed rep(s) = not completing the number of prescribed reps in a set. Basically anything you can’t grind through.
Missed reps can happen even when you’re not training to a 10 RPE, but with practice you can minimize the number of missed reps you deal with when training.
Eight or Nine out of Ten
I already alluded to this above and in that previous article but the majority of your weight/resistance/strength training should hover around 8-9/10 RPE.
AKA Technical failure
It is not when you can’t actually complete the lift anymore (absolute failure). It is usually a few reps shy of absolute failure (10 out of 10). You should be able to get at least one last clean rep up before you quit.
Clean meaning, if you were watching someone finish up, it looked technically sound and the pace didn’t change too much. No grinding.
It’s a fine line between absolute failure and just grinding that last rep out or two. Generally speaking I don’t like seeing people grind out reps. This is particularly important if strength (max force generation) is the ultimate training objective.
That’s why it’s an 8 or 9 out of 10, rather than just a 9. Plenty of people can grind out one or two more reps depending on the rep range.
I’d recommend more of an 8 out of 10 for pure strength training. Strength as an objective here means increasing the maximum weight you can use in any given exercise.
An 8 means definitely no grinding, no hitch or stall at any point. Clean reps like this, do a better job of developing the neurological/coordination element of pure strength work.
I’m a little more forgiving when it comes to hypertrophy (muscle growth), so it could be more of a 9. Especially on the last set of an exercise.
Just know that if growth is your objective, a telltale sign that the set is done, is the moment you grind a rep out.
This is the distinction I like to make between an 8/10 and a 9/10.
Any research I’ve read on this (and there isn’t much) usually shows that you don’t have to kill a muscle to get a training effect, you just have to get within a few reps of absolute failure.
The Plyometric Exception
Plyometrics are a different animal altogether. Shock training, whatever you want to call it.
I haven’t talked much about them on this blog because they are a fairly intermediate/advanced training concept and I usually try to keep things more beginner/novice oriented.
Some may conceptualize plyometric best as explosive training or jump training. Although you can do plyometric training on the upper body that wouldn’t include jumping.
Basically it’s a very fast eccentric and explosive maximum effort concentric.
If you ever take to absolute failure or technical failure, you’re doing it wrong.
Above I said that maximum effort isn’t needed and that’s true for more traditional resistance training. It doesn’t really apply to plyometric or explosive training in the same way.
That’s why it deserves a special mention. With this type of training you need to try and be as explosive/quick as possible and apply a maximum amount of force at maximum velocity.
ie. Maximum effort but you should never feel that fatigued doing it.
That’s why on an RPE I like to represent a 3 or a 4. Not because it’s that easy to do, but because if you’re doing it correctly, it should feel that easy on every rep. Even by the time you terminate the set.
Now it’s still best to work up to that in any given session, but the sweet spot for plyometric training on an RPE scale looks a little screwy as a result.
That’s because RPE is associated with fatigue/exertion not strictly effort. Fatigue is no bueno when doing plyometric training properly.
The RPE scale can also change within a workout depending on the objective of the exercise and it’s intensity.
For example, you may want low RPE warm up sets (2-6 RPE) for your main lift or two:
- Warm Up Set #1 = 2 RPE
- Warm Up Set #2 = 4 RPE
- Warm Up Set #3 = 6 RPE
That’s a very generalized warm up set approach but it’s one way to make RPE more applicable.
Warm up sets give you an opportunity to adequately ramp up to a max efforts and warrants its own article too.
Ramping is my most common recommendation so that a complicated main lift could even look like:
- Warm Up Set #1 = 5 RPE
- Warm Up Set #2 = 7 RPE
- Work Set #1 = 8 RPE
- Work Set #2 = 8 RPE
- Work Set #3 = 9 RPE
This is a way to notate how to approach each set. Notice that on the last work set (assume this is a hypertrophy approach) I’m recommending a 9. Meaning I’d like to see the last rep ground out a bit. In other words, that last set should be the hardest.
Work Set Note: If you’re getting a program that lists 3×10 of a particular exercise, it usually implies that you are doing 3 work sets using a weight that you can only lift roughly 10 times.
It doesn’t include the sets you used to practice or warm up to that weight. If you’re using a particular heavy weight, it is generally a good idea to warm up to that weight, rather than just jumping into using it. Unless you’re already warm, often single joint or less technical exercises done later in any routine don’t require warm up sets.
We can also use RPE to gradually introduce exercises and reduce muscle soreness over a phase of programming:
- Week #1 = 6 RPE
- Week #2 = 7 RPE
- Week #3 = 8 RPE
- Week #4 = 9 RPE
6 RPE is a pretty long way off from 9 RPE, so you get considerably less muscle soreness when training at that level of exertion.
If you’re not using volume, or intensity to manage soreness at the start of a new program, or phase of programming: You can use RPE quite effectively.
Beyond those RPE use-cases, RPE can also be applied independently to each prescribed exercise/lift. Usually based on the type of lift.
If your first few exercises are more strength oriented (<8 reps) you may want to be more of a 7-8 RPE.
If your next few exercise are more hypertrophy oriented (5-12 reps) you may want more of a 8-9 RPE.
The last few exercise may be more muscular endurance (>12 reps) and you may want more of a 9-10 RPE.
This associates RPE more closely with your desired training outcomes.
You Can Take It To an 11
Last caveat; On rare occasions where a person is using a supra-maximal load — fancy word for more than they can actually lift, usually only lower — you may see an 11 RPE from a coach.
This is an indication that you should not only grind that last rep out, but get help from a spotter for what are called “forced reps.”
Using this scheme you can actually take things to an 11 out of 10 or even further. This is where RPE for resistance training diverges from RPE used for endurance training.
You can lift more eccentrically than concentrically. Meaning you can lower a lot more weight than you can lift back up.
Even after you’ve hit concentric failure — the inability to lift the weight back up — you can usually continue to train to eccentric failure. Eccentric failure is the inability to lower the weight back down with control.
If you fail on a rep and can lower it safely, a spotter (or two or three) can help you lift the weight back up by taking some of workload during the concentric (lifting) action.
If you continue to have help lifting the weight back up past 10 RPE, you can usually continue to lower the weight down for a few more reps.
11 RPE would be two eccentric reps where you get some help on the concentric from a spotter. The 10 is where you’ll need concentric help, and then one more lowering and the spotter helps you rack it.
A 12 RPE would be one more of those. 13 RPE one more and well usually this is about the point at which eccentric overload becomes pointless to continue.
You’re never going to see someone do more than 5 eccentric lowers on a forced rep set attempt, unless there is something else whacky going on.
Realistically speaking, forced reps are not something anyone should do with any kind of frequency. I very very rarely ever use them. If you’re a beginner or intermediate, they shouldn’t even be on your radar.
Research suggests that forced reps in this application doesn’t really do much. You’re working with a load that you can already handle concentrically for however many reps prior to the forced reps.
As a result, you’re not really eccentrically overloading the working muscles. Meaning, you’re not really using a load greater than what your muscles can handle eccentrically. You’re using fatigue to reach that state.
True eccentric training would require using a weight in any given exercise that you can’t lift concentrically at all. This type of eccentric training is more useful but but that’s a different article for a different day. And it’s still for advanced trainees only.
For our intents and purposes, the majority of your lifting should be about a 7-9 out of 10.
The Practicality of RPE
Now a lot of coaches out there still don’t use RPE when talking about weight lifting.
I’ve actually started transitioning to RIR (Reps in Reserve) when talking about lifting specifically because it’s a little more accurate for that. However RPE is still pretty valid for neuromuscular training beyond just lifting weights. That’s why I wanted to publish this first, as a transition article.
I’ve had plenty of coaches tell me they don’t think RPE (or RIR) is practical. Especially for beginners/intermediates because they don’t know their limits, or what their bodies are capable of yet.
Sure, but they never will know if you just tell them exactly how much to lift and ultimately stall out once they are past the beginner/intermediate stage, without you.
To counter that I’ve never known a sprint coach who didn’t use percentage of effort (same thing really) to describe workloads in training. Go figure…
Though not all advanced trainees are using RPE specifically, most are where they are using some variant intuitively. They’ve at least figured out when to go hard and when not to go hard. This is a vital skill in all types of training and RPE (or RIR) are valuable tools to that aim.
Sure there are some all-or-nothing types that just go balls-to-the-wall all the time. They find success sometimes, but often hit a wall or an injury or burn out.
RPE may not accomplish much for slowing those types down, but I’ve seen it happen. If a coach or mentor is present to remind them. Do not subscribe the “no pain, no gain” motto.
It’s a matter of the trainee conceptualizing this idea and developing the training intelligence surrounding it’s implementation.
No method is without its drawbacks, but I happen to think that teaching a trainee how to tune into their body is one of the most useful they’ll ever learn.
There is a ton of research on biofeedback showing that it improves results, performances, rate of conception, you name it — that last one was a joke…
Biofeedback being a fancy word for using feedback mechanisms tuned to biology, but it also applies to simply asking an athlete how they feel that day on a scale of 1-10.
If you’re just mindlessly adding a specific amount of load every time you train; There are some results you’re leaving in the gym. You have to learn how to gauge things properly to get the most out of each training session.
This will help you make large gains when you can, and preserve or maintain when you need to. Life isn’t linear, you’ll have ups and downs.
RIR has held up to be accurate and practical even in beginners. While not exactly the same as RPE, they serve the same purpose. I highly recommend you consider using RPE in your training approach — or RIR when you lift weights.
Part of the art of training is getting to understand your body a little bit better every time you train and using of of these scales for your workouts is a good way to tune in over time.
It can be worth tracking RPE along with the weights, sets, or reps you’re using from workout to workout. It will give you an indication of where to go and when.
If you’re cutting your attempts short by a rep or two, you know you’re overestimating your ability.
If you hit 10’s a lot, then that can tell you that you need to take a little weight off from your natural assumptions.
If you’re hitting a 8 consistently, but you’re two or three reps above what you were hoping to achieve. This is a sign than you may be able to use a little more load than your natural assumptions.
The important thing is deliberate practice and refinement over time.
The sole purpose of RPE is learning how to estimate your own ability in any given training session better.
I want you to learn where your limits are, just don’t go all out without some safety in mind.
If you are going to shoot for a 10 RPE once and while. Make sure you have a spotter, safety mechanism (like pins) or some kind of supervision.
Actually I recommend a spotter on any lift that puts your body between the weight and the floor (squats/bench press/etc…). When you’re going for a 10 out of 10 RPE, it’s especially a requirement.
In the meantime try this out. Make a note after every set. Get a feel for how to progress your sets over time. Adjust on your next training session. Try it just for a phase or two of training even, you can thank me later. It’s a self-awareness tool.
If you have any questions, leave a comment or hit me up on social media.