Rated Perceived Effort/Exertion (RPE) – can RPE be used in a Novice (Beginner) Strength Training Program?

Rated Perceived Effort or Rated Perceived Exertion (RPE) is a term that is ‘heavily’ used in the Strength Training (and related fitness) industry. However, there are differing opinions regarding if RPE should even be used, especially with Novice (Beginner) trainees. Here, we take a closer look at some of the ways in which RPE could be used intelligently and effectively, even in a Novice (Beginner) program.

Strength Training Program

At the very outset, it is imperative that appropriate, personalized Health/Fitness/Strength Training goals are set for every trainee. Then, based on these goals, a comprehensive Training Program should be designed by someone (Coach) qualified. The trainee then trains according to this training program, under the supervision of the Coach.

It is important that the Training Program itself is not entirely rigid and gets tweaked/updated as needed periodically, depending upon whichever ways the trainee responds to the program over time.

A good and proper Strength Training program using Barbells is a VERY EFFECTIVE and SAFE training program, if followed diligently, and can help trainee attain his/her goals. The following comprise a well-designed Training Program:

  • Set of Exercises to be done
  • Discussion about what is a good Form with which to perform each of these exercises, (the Coach then needs to teach proper form and make corrections as appropriate, during Training Sessions)
  • Schedule for when these exercises ought to be performed
  • Details regarding Weights (Intensity) to be used during workouts
  • Details of Repetitions and Sets (Volume) to be performed during workouts
  • VERY IMPORTANT is the way progressions are programmed into the training program

Novice Training Program Progressions

Most Novice (Beginner) training programs will start with a weight with which the trainee is able to perform the exercise while maintaining proper form. The progression then takes place according to the training plan…such as by adding more weight (like a couple of kilograms, for example) each time the trainee turns up at the gym. Volume (Number of Sets x Number of Reps) is usually constant for Novice Programs. This is termed Novice Linear Progression (NLP) and progresses until weight cannot be added each and every workout while maintaining proper exercise form.

How do we program these progressions, (increases in weight as well as increases in the number of sets and repetitions)? Is this always a hard value, such as a kilogram or two, that gets added every workout? Or, is there a way to use RPE to tweak the progressions according to the trainee’s recovery and adaptability?

Now, what exactly is RPE and anyway, where does it fit into all this?

Gunnar Borg, a psychology professor at Stockholm University came up with the Borg/RPE scale in the 1960s, using which athletes could rate their level of efforts from 6 to 20, where 6 is “very light” and 20 is “extremely difficult”. He later came up with a ten (10) point scale (Borg CR10 scale), which is nowadays widely used in sports, (and in clinical settings as well, to estimate level of pain).

From a Strength Training perspective then (and for workouts in general), RPE is simply a way to quantify how difficult or easy, a workout was.

When someone says that doing something is hard (or easy), it can mean different things to different people. RPE thus, quantifies, to a certain extent, this degree of difficulty. It is a scale from 1-10 with 10 being the most difficult. RPE can also be viewed as Reps in Reserve (RIR)…that is, how many more reps could the trainee have done in that set (with proper form). Thus, an RPE 8 for example, would mean that trainee could have done 10-8=2 more reps. If you increased the workout weight, then perhaps, the trainee could have done just 1 more rep in that set (which would mean, it would have been an RPE 9 effort). Or, if the weight is such that trainee could not have done even one more rep (with proper form), then, this would have been an RPE 10 effort (absolute maximum).

Therefore, for novice trainees, is RPE helpful in determining progressions in their training program?

It is inevitable that RPE will be used by experienced lifters who are well into an Intermediate Stage or into an Advanced Stage in their lifting. Certainly, a lot of professional Powerlifters use RPE to determine their workouts according to their training plan and are quite skilled at doing so. However, novice lifters, being beginners in their training career, would not understand RPE fully and might not be able to determine it correctly. There is also the fact that sometimes we might feel quite awful and weak yet, complete a Personal Record (PR) or two during training. At other times, feeling like Mr. Universe, we might be unable to complete a work-set according to the training plan. Perhaps, even a warmup-set feels extremely heavy on certain days, while actually, for some trainees, warmup-sets almost always feel very heavy and uncomfortable, even when their work-sets feel less so later on. Therefore, RPE may not be able to truly reflect our real capabilities on any particular day.

Still, even for novice trainees, RPE can be helpful…if used intelligently

While it might not be prudent to base Novice Training programs and progressions solely on RPE, it can certainly be used as a second-line mechanism to double-check the progressions related to weights, sets and reps earmarked in the training program.

Let us say there is an instance where the trainee has had to go through some difficult time at work, at college/school or elsewhere. Perhaps, trainee was down with a slight fever/cold a couple of days earlier. Maybe, trainee is an athlete and has had a very tough sports workout the previous day or two, or might even be slightly injured in some way.

Circumstances could have been such that adequate nutrition and/or rest was unavailable the past week due to extensive travel and meetings.

Thus, workouts as according to the training plan can become quite difficult if the trainee is not recovering well from previous workouts. This could be due to too much stress in his/her life, not eating properly, either always or perhaps, just the past couple of days. This applies to an adequate amount of proper rest as well.

There could be many other circumstances such as the above, where the trainee would realize that it is in fact, very difficult to keep up with a hardcore numbered progression for workouts (either weight-wise, volume-wise or a combination thereof), on any particular day. This feeling is quite subjective, but more importantly, is very personal and can only be realized and gauzed by the trainee. Under such circumstances, it is imperative to reduce workout load appropriately, according to trainee’s determination of their RPE.

It might be a good idea to keep most training workouts in the RPE 8-8.5 (or less) range, and certainly, to ensure that not too many workouts happen in the RPE 9 or more ranges. The benefits that accrue from an RPE 9 or from an RPE 10 effort, might not yield that many more benefits than from RPE 8 or less, efforts. However, the fatigue that sets in from an RPE 9 (or more) level workout is quite high. At the same time, the risk of injury increases dramatically at these higher RPE levels.

Also, an inadequate amount of rest between sets could also lead to say, the third set getting to be an RPE 9 effort or an RPE 10 effort, even while the first two sets at the same weight, were determined to be RPE 8 efforts, for instance. In these situations, the trainee must be counseled to take adequate rest between sets and to not rush the workouts. RPE helps with identifying and correcting such situations too.

Now, extensive conditioning/cardio workouts will for sure, eat into gains that can be had from strength training. This is known as the Interference Effect. Whether such conditioning/cardio workouts are important/required and at what times might they be more appropriate etc., are topics that require a separate and more detailed discussion, which is best slated for another day. However, it is inevitable that such extensive conditioning/cardio workouts will affect adaptations and consequently, progressions made from strength training. This is undeniably true even when the reverse is not…that is, there is no adverse effect on conditioning gains, arising from strength training workouts.

Anyway, the above could all be utilized to determine possible patterns that might lead to high levels of RPE during workout, and if so, then, to take corrective actions where required.

So, what all can RPE be used for, in a novice training program

In a Novice Training Program, RPE can be utilized as a second line of decision-making to reiterate and/or to make modifications as required to the sets, reps and weights scheme designed in the training program for workouts and progressions. RPE is therefore useful to,

  • Design personalized training programs
  • Keep training programs from getting impossibly hard, every single workout
  • Ensure that workouts remain in the RPE 8/8.5 or below range for the most part
  • Determine if trainee is recovering properly on the days between workouts,
  • Take into consideration, mental stress from life events or even physical stress from other activities, that have happened in the days/hours before the current workout that may affect recovery
  • Take into consideration stress and recovery (or lack thereof) status from previous Strength Training and other workouts
  • Therefore, tweak workouts according to how a trainee feels on a particular day
  • Ensure that adequate rest is taken between sets during workout, and that trainee is not rushing through warm- up and work-sets without adequate recovery in-between sets
  • Thus, identify possible patterns that might lead to increased levels of RPE during workout and to take corrective actions as might be required

How can Novice Trainees handle RPE?

It is a good idea for novice trainees to try to think of what RPE level to associate with, each set completed during workout and to record them without fail in their training logs. This could be applied at-least against their work-sets and will help them understand RPE and will also help them get good at determining RPE levels. It will certainly be very beneficial to them further down the road when they get way into the intermediate and advanced stages of their lifting careers.

Thus, while not banking on RPE completely to design novice training programs (due to the fact that untrained novices cannot be good at identifying and using RPE properly at the start their training), RPE can still be utilized to design and to tweak workouts, in order to produce effective stimuli for trainee’s adaptations, and to minimize fatigue and the risk of injuries.

One more thing to note

Last but certainly not the least, the coach must be very watchful that trainees do not engage in macho behavior, thinking that one more rep can be grinded through, even after an RPE 10 effort, for example.  The coach also needs to ensure that trainees are not too lazy to think about determining proper RPE efforts to associate with a set just completed, but simply write down a number that comes to mind, as RPE. In such situations obviously, the RPE numbers written down will not be helpful and in fact, can lead to erroneous decision-making regarding training program design, progressions, and associated modifications thereof.

Table 1

A  Guideline to determine RPE levels during workouts, (could vary slightly, based on your own personal experience)


Session RPE

RPE can also be used to quantify the level of difficulty of an entire session. These are termed as a Session RPEs and can be used to gauze how trainees are recovering from their workouts overall.

Table 2

A Guideline to determine Session RPE level, after completion of all workouts in a session

While a single session-RPE might not yield a pattern, when looking at several session-RPEs over time, a pattern can be discerned regarding if trainees are recovering well (or not).  Using this, the training program and progressions can then be tweaked accordingly.  Where applicable, trainees can also be counseled to improve upon their recovery parameters such as, to get adequate rest and proper nutrition, and to decrease their stress overall.