The Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Scale

When it comes to developing strength training programs for athletes, I’ve found that the RPE scale is one of the best.  It allows an athlete to regulate themselves while still being able to see improvements in strength and power compared to the traditional percentage-based program.  If you are unfamiliar with the RPE scale, it is a self-reported scale ranging from 1 – 10.  A very light activity, such as watching TV or sitting on the couch would be recorded as a 1.  A max effort squat where the individual is unable to perform another repetition with proper form or an all-out sprint would be recorded as a 10.

Pros of using an RPE Scale:

It allows the athlete to understand their bodies better.

As an athlete, being able to push yourself to new limits is needed to see significant growth and change in speed and power.  By understanding what a true “10” on the RPE scale, it will help set you up for success both in the weight room and on the field of play.  It allows you to self-reflect and question if you are really pushing yourself as much as you should be. Remember, a true “10” is an all-out max, meaning you are unable to perform any more reps at that intensity.

It allows the athlete to not overexert themselves.

We’ve all been there.  You wake up one morning and your body just feels off.  You’ve had 2 games this week, multiple practices, late nights studying for a test and your strength coach just told you the main lift for the day is 4 sets of 5 deadlift at 80%.  You know that your body can’t handle that today, you’re on no sleep and haven’t had a proper recovery day this week.  If you attempt that weight, you’re going to end up getting frustrated, or worse, you might end up hurting yourself.  The great thing about the RPE Scale is that if you change that 80% into a rating of 8, you’ll be able to perform the lift to the best of your ability for that day.  Yes, the weight won’t be the same, but the stimulus will be much more beneficial and help the athlete progress instead of digress.

It gives the athlete flexibility in their programming.

Most programs have the athlete follow a certain percentage, for example, they have to squat 3 sets at 5 repetitions with 75% of their 1 repetition max.  The problem with this is the program was made 6 – 10 weeks ago when the athlete was fresh.  Between the beginning of the training block and now, numerous factors have come into play: sleep habits, daily nutrition, the intensity of practices, the intensity of games, fatigue, stress from school, stresses from friends, etc.  Being able to adjust the weights based off of how an athlete feels opposed to a predetermined percentage will continue to improve their performance and prevent plateaus.

It allows the athlete to adhere to their programming better.

Since the athlete has the ability to change their program up (to a certain extent), they will be much more likely to adhere to the program.  Just because an RPE 8 was 405 lbs. last week doesn’t mean 405 lbs. will feel like an 8 this week.  Being able to push harder on the days the athlete feels better will allow them to get stronger with the prescribed program and prevent deviation.

Cons of using an RPE Scale:

It allows the athlete to slack.

Since an athlete is assessing themselves, it might give them the chance to take the day off and slack.  For example, they might have to perform 4 sets of 6 repetitions on back squat.  Last week they were able to get 150 lbs. at a rating of 5.  This week, they might not be in the mood to squat and rate 135 lbs. a 10.  This is where the coach has to come in and have a discussion with the athlete.  Are they taking a day off, or is there something else going on behind the scenes, i.e. lack of sleep, hydration, injury or nutrition?  An RPE scale is not used to take days off, it’s used to evaluate the intensity and if you had more in the tank.

It takes time to understand

If an athlete is new to the weight room and doesn’t understand what true exertion is, they may not actually know what the ratings mean to themselves.  Since they have never been pushed to an actual 10 before, they may perceive a 100 lb. squat as their “10” when really they can squat 150 lbs. It will take a couple of weeks or even an entire training block for them to finally understand what their true ratings are.

The RPE scale is a great tool for athletes and coaches.  It allows athletes to still push themselves but eliminates the frustration associated with missing attempts or having off-days in the weight room.  Being able to adjust the weights on a daily basis will not only give athletes a safer way to train but sets them up for success in the future.  Understanding what true exertion is in the weight room will directly translate to the field of play and give them the extra push they need when the game is on the line.

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