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RPE: Rate of Perceived Exertion

The use of RPE is becoming more and more popular in the sports world. While this was initially developed for cardio exercises, it is now also widely used in strength sports.

For those who don't know what RPE is yet, we have written this blog. Here you will find an explanation of what a Perceived Exertion Rate actually is, how to calculate it and how to apply it in your cardio and strength training sessions. We also work out the pros and cons of its use.

What is RPE?

The abbreviation RPE stands for Rate of Perceived Exertion. Other spellings of this term are Rating of Perceived Exertion or Perceived Exertion Rate. To keep it simple, we'll just call it RPE from now on.

RPE is a method of determining the intensity of a particular effort. Based on the resulting score, you know at what intensity you train and whether you should, for example, step up or take it easy. The method was developed by Gunnar Borg in the 1980s and was used for cardio exercises. Today, the method has also been adopted by the strength sports world and is widely used, for example, in weightlifting and powerlifting.

RPE: Rate of Perceived Exertion

How do you calculate it?

The original method of RPE devised by Gunnar had a scale of 6 to 20. This unusual scale was based on heart rate. An RPE of 6 stood for a heart rate of 60 beats per minute, 12 for 120 beats per minute, and so on.

The method that is mainly used today has a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 stands for minimum effort and a score of 10 for maximum effort. A score of 10 really means that you have given everything. How the rest of the scale translates into intensity depends on the purpose for which you use it.

Calculate RPE for endurance training

Measuring intensity based on RPE can be very useful for endurance training. For example, the weather can have a significant influence on your performance when you go running, for example. Think of wind, but certainly also temperature. Terrain can also make a big difference. After all, 10 kilometers on a treadmill feels very different from being out on the road or in the woods. It may therefore be wise to use RPE as a measure rather than a distance and time.

Although the RPE scores can be interpreted fairly broadly, they can give you a good guideline on how intensive your effort has been. In the table below you will find rough guidelines for RPE based on endurance sports and cardio exercises.

RPE Meaning
10 Maximum effort. Completely out of breath and unable to speak.
9 Very high effort. Very difficult breathing and you may be able to speak one word at a time.
8 Difficulty breathing and may be able to speak a few words at a time.
7 Little effort. Shortness of breath and difficulty speaking, but still manages to speak short sentences.
6 Reasonable effort. Heavy breathing, but can be sustained for 30 to 60 minutes.
5 Normal effort. Breathing is increased, but still able to hold a conversation at some intervals.
4 Calm effort. Slight increase in breathing. It is possible to have a conversation.
3 Light effort. Easy to maintain without much effort.
2 Very light effort. A pace that can be maintained for several hours at a time.
1 Minimal effort. Think of a slow walk, but no more than this.

Calculate RPE for strength sports & muscle mass

Within strength training and bodybuilding, RPE is applied in a different way. Here RPE is not based on length of time but on the number of possible repetitions. For example, when you go for a new personal best on the squat, you do one repetition with maximum effort. You'll probably get RPE 10 because if you tried one more rep, it wouldn't work.

So what does it mean if you get RPE 9? Or RPE 7? Actually, this is very easy. You take the maximum score of 10 and subtract from this the number of repetitions you could have done. Suppose you do 5 reps, but could have done a total of 8. You then did not do 3 repetitions, which you did have the strength for. You have then achieved an RPE of 10 – 3 = 7.

In this way, you can easily calculate for yourself which RPE you have achieved and whether this is in line with what you should achieve. See the table below for each RPE score with an explanation.

RPE Meaning
10 Maximum effort. You couldn't do any more reps.
9,5 You could maybe do one more rep.
9 You could definitely do one more rep.
8,5 You could still do one and maybe two reps.
8 You should definitely do two more reps.
7,5 You could still do two and maybe three more reps.
7 You could certainly do three more reps.
6,5 You could still do three and maybe four reps.
6 You could certainly do four more reps.
5,5 You could do at least four and maybe five more reps.
5 You could certainly do five more reps.
4,5 You could still do five and maybe six reps.
4 You could certainly do six more reps.
3,5 You could do at least six and maybe seven reps.
3 You could certainly do seven more reps.
2,5 You could still do seven and maybe eight reps.
2 You could certainly do eight more reps.
1,5 You could still do eight and maybe nine reps.
1 You could certainly do nine more reps.

Reps in reserve (RIR)

Due to the increased use of RPE in strength sports, and alternative scale has been developed, namely RIR. The term RIR stands for reps in reserve or the number of reps you could possibly have done. The RIR score, therefore, stands for the number of extra achievable repetitions.

Have you really given everything? Then you could not have done any more repetitions and your set gets a score of 0. Could you have done 2 more repetitions? Then the set gets a score of 2. This scale is in fact an inverted RPE scale. It doesn't really matter which of the two you use. We, therefore, recommend that you use whatever you find easiest.

How do you use RPE?

Now that you know how to calculate RPE, it is also useful to know how you can apply this in your own training sessions. Because which RPE is now desirable? When do you train hard enough or too hard? The answer to this question differs per training purpose.

RPE guidelines for endurance sports

Within endurance sports, it is difficult to give a guideline for an ideal RPE. When your goal is to increase your sprint speed, you will usually work towards an RPE of 10. Are you training for a marathon? Then it can also be good that you run a half marathon at your target pace for a full marathon to get used to the distance.

In endurance sports, you should therefore also take the duration of your effort into account. For example, you should maintain intensity with a score of 8 for about 10 minutes. Depending on the goal of your training, it may or may not be the intention to actually maintain it for this entire period. For fitness training, you often want to push your body to this limit, but if you only want to burn calories, this is certainly not necessary.

RPE guidelines for strength sports & muscle mass

Within strength training and bodybuilding there are rough guidelines for an optimal RPE. Because the goal is to develop your muscles further, it is necessary to apply progressive overload. You should therefore challenge your body to stimulate growth. Research shows that a low RPE offers an insufficient challenge to stimulate maximum progress, while too high an RPE can compromise form and even reduce strength for subsequent exercises.

For these reasons, the ideal RPE for strength training and muscle mass is often between 8 and 10. It is important to take your training schedule and technique into account. Do you do multiple exercises for one muscle group? Then it is probably not wise to immediately train the first set to an RPE of 10. It can even be beneficial to have one or a few repetitions leftover in your first sets so that you also have enough strength for the following exercises. Towards the last sets for a specific muscle group, you can try to squeeze everything out. Make sure that this does not affect your form to prevent injuries!

Benefits of RPE

Using RPE in the gym can help you make a lot of progress. We have therefore briefly listed all the advantages below. This gives you a better idea of ​​what RPE can mean for your training and progression.

You adapt your training to the shape of the day

Unlike training based on percentages, RPE does take the shape of the day into account. Suppose you have eaten less for a day, slept poorly, or we're stressed. All of these factors can affect your performance.

For example, an 80% squat can feel much heavier on a bad day than it does on a good day. If you still try to achieve a percentage, it may just be that you do not achieve the desired number of repetitions. Not only is this very taxing on your body, but it can also be demotivating.

With RPE you decide how heavy the weight or your endurance training is, as long as you achieve the intended RPE. By training in this way, you listen carefully to your body and you prevent yourself from training too hard.

RPE can be easily used for any exercise

It is virtually impossible to know your 1 rep max for all the exercises you perform in the gym. This makes it very difficult for many exercises to train on the basis of percentages. With RPE you don't have this problem, as you can sense how many reps you have left at that moment.

RPE ensures that you keep making progress

Linear progression can work well, but often to a certain extent. At some point, you come to a boundary that you cannot cross. In that case, you will have to take a step back. When you train based on RPE, the progression will not be completely linear, but you will train with peaks and troughs in your volume. This ultimately ensures that you can slowly but surely continue to grow in the volume you can handle, without feeling really reaching a plateau.

Disadvantages of RPE

While RPE is a helpful yardstick, it can be a little trickier to apply properly in some cases. Below you can see the possible disadvantages that the use of RPE can have.

Determining RPE can be difficult

It can be difficult, especially for beginners, to estimate the right RPE. You need to feel how many repetitions you could still do or how long you can sustain an effort. At a certain point, you learn to estimate this better and better, but in the beginning, this can still be quite difficult.

You don't know in advance how much weight you will use

This does not necessarily have to be a problem, but it can be experienced as a problem for some people. You only know during the training how much weight you can use to achieve a certain RPE. As a result, it can sometimes be a matter of looking for the right RPE, so that you have to do an extra set to get to the right weight, for example.

Frequently Asked Questions

We conclude this article with some frequently asked questions about RPE. So here are some brief answers to relevant questions about this term. Do you still have questions after reading this blog? Please leave a message at the bottom of this page.

What does RPE stand for?

RPE stands for Rate of Perceived Exertion. Literally, this means the degree of perceived tension. Simply put, it is therefore a way of mapping the degree of effort/intensity.

RPE vs percentage. Wat is beter?

It is difficult to determine whether one is better than the other. However, it is true that training based on RPE takes more into account how you feel at that moment. This means you are less likely to run into a plateau and therefore continue to make constant progress in the long term. In this way, you can become structurally stronger.

What can you use RPE for?

RPE can be used for powerlifting, weightlifting, running, swimming and you name it. It is very widely applicable and is also suitable for any gender and all ages.

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