Perception: A Case For and Against RPE In Training
I think we're inundated with a number of ways to progress and regulate training these days. We've got percentages, velocity numbers, estimated maxes, and more. One I consistently use with a number of my clients and athletes, regardless of sport or goal, is the use of Reps In Reserve (RIR) or Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE). Admittedly, while these have some differences, I use these two methods interchangeably as a way of explaining the other. But all these are is relying on an individual's internal gauge for how hard an effort in the gym is.
And while I use these methods, which I will simply relegate to RPE for the sake of this article, I must admit there are a number of pros and cons to using this approach in training.
For those who are vocally opposed to using these methods, especially with beginners, I want to highlight how and why I use it for my athletes and adults currently. I work primarily in a Semi-Private training format. The largest groups I have conducted in this setting has been 12 individuals, while I normally work with anywhere from 2-5 individuals at any given time. In this, I can watch a majority of all sets completed in a session, and it allows me to get to know each individual's tendencies for effort or exertion. With this ability, I'm able to begin to create a visual profile for what a full effort is and have individuals add or drop load based on what visual feedback of effort looks like. I'm also able to supervise true sets to failure on selected exercises to allow athletes to know what technical or physiological failure looks like.
My most common question to my athletes and clients after a set is always, "how did that feel?" With a follow up of, "How many more do you think you could have done?" With those who have been training for a while, the responses start to blend together. As a coach, I can draw a conclusion to whether or not to add or drop load based on the answers as well. The farther apart the answers are, for example an individual saying the set was "easy" but also had "1-2 reps in reserve," the greater the need for a different weight selection (in this case, needing to add load). The beauty of this, is it also allows us to adjust daily for environmental or daily factors which can cause the fluctuation of perceived exertion. This allows us to continue on improving without having major hiccups in training or having to make major adjustments to training plans on the fly.
The downside, however, of RPE is the same as its upsides. We're relying on someone's internal feedback to give us a gauge for effort. Some individuals are great at "sandbagging" or being lackadaisical, and giving them RPE allows them to not work hard. While I have my own means of curbing this being a business owner, those who work in school settings where you do not get to choose your athletes you work with, my means of curbing this are not conducive (because I can limit who I do business with). The other downside of using RPE with beginners, is their lack of gauge of what full efforts or maximal exertion is. And in a large group setting, this can become very tricky have a handle on what is a full effort or not.
In order for RPE to be well carried out in a training setting, a coach has to have a good insight into what the athlete is doing, what visual feedback is telling you about the set, and whether or not an athlete needs to add load. In a large group setting, this can become disastrous. Because while you may have a "sandbagger" in your group, you may also have an overzealous individual who says they have 2-3 Reps in Reserve (an RPE 7), and then add 5lbs and fail the set because they were closing in on maximal exertion rather rapidly. This can create a safety and longevity problem for you a coach, and the athlete training. You also won't have as safe environment for individuals to truly find an exertional maximum without the adequate safety measures in place.
Now, do either of these things make for a major change in the effectiveness of RPE as regulatory tool? No. But we need to be aware of the upsides and downsides as they relate to the coach and the individual being coached to use them. RPE can be a really effective tool to regulate training and its daily fluctuations to keep individuals on the right track, but there is a skill level on the part of both the coach and athlete in order to make sure efforts are within the right intensity and effort. If a coach and athlete can have clear lines of communication, and RPE can be adequately followed, it has a tremendous amount to gain for long term progress. If a coach and athlete cannot clearly communicate or be precise with it, however, then there are better and more objective means we can use to regulate training.