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Rate of perceived exertion done by woman at the gym

Rate of Perceived Exertion: Breaking Your Performance Plateau

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If you are looking to get past a training plateau to improve performance, rate of perceived exertion (RPE) is a solid process to use in your routine development. Combined with Micro-HIIT efforts, and you can develop time-efficient programs to drive your performance to new levels.

RPE emerged in the 1970s and early 1980s as a subjective method to gauge exercise intensity. It helps focus on exertion to promote increased exercise performance, rather than simply working from a traditional percentage of 1RPM.

The RPE method will work for about 90 percent of people. There is a small population that is so sedentary, that any amount of physical activity will seem hard – and the opposite end of the spectrum of those so well-trained that it takes a lot of exercises to reach sufficient intensity levels.

For the majority, the program is easy to implement and is a method of monitoring the combined intensity and duration to create an optimal experience with proper levels of overload to improve athletic performance.

The RPE Scale

ScaleLevel of Effort (Aerobic)Level of Effort (Resistance)/Reps in Reserve (RIR)
10Feels almost impossible to keep going. Completely out of breath, unable to talk. Cannot maintain for more than a very short time.No more reps capable; maximum effort.
9Very difficult to maintain exercise intensity. Can barely breathe and speak only a few words.One rep left in the tank.
7-8Borderline uncomfortable. Short of breath, can speak a sentence.Tougher to lift; could push 2-3 more reps.
4-6Breathing heavily, can hold a short conversation. Still somewhat comfortable, but becoming noticeably more challenging.Normal warm-up set/beginning of routine; 8-10 reps without issue.
2-3Feels like you can maintain for hours. Easy to breathe and converse.Light warm-up weight level; no real exertion.
1Hardly any exertion.No exertion; can lift “endlessly”

The model can be used in a limited and indefinite capacity to push you through your training plateaus and improve your athletic performance. Notably, while the scale was designed initially for endurance training, it is readily incorporated into resistance based training, as we note below.

How to Apply

Sprinter improving performance

To Improve Cardio Performance

  1. Perform your basic cardio activity: running, treadmill, elliptical, bike, etc.
  2. Using the RPE scale, assess your performance rate of perceived exertion – the talk test is a good method to use.
  3. Using your RPE, adjust either the duration of your effort or its intensity so the majority of your workout rests between 4-6 on the RPE scale.
  4. To improve performance, focus on HIIT intervals that push your RPE to 7-8. The intervals should be of fixed time or distance. You need to be able to maintain 7-8 RPE for the duration or distance of the intervals – this is where you adjust the routine to maximize performance gains.
  5. As your routine progresses, you will notice the same intervals trigger lower RPE levels.
  6. When this occurs, you need to either increase the overall activity duration or the interval intensity to raise your interval RPE back to 7-8.
  7. Maintain this pattern of increasing your activity effort through RPE assessment for three weeks. For the fourth week, return to steady-state cardio to give your body time to recover in order to maximize your performance development. See our article on rest and recovery to understand its benefits.

Woman adding weight to improve fitness performance.

To Improve Resistance Training Performance

  1. Decide the rep range you want to use for the exercise. Compound lifts will typically use fewer reps than isolation motions – but it’s dependent upon your routine.
  2. Determine your RPE and RIR. Here, you will not want to go to failure as part of this methodology, as it prevents you from pushing your muscles into states of growth. We recommend an RPE of 7 to 8, with an RIR of 2-3.
  3. For the exercise, recall your last amount lifted: weight, reps, and RPE (Note: This is why we recommend you always keep a log of your routines).
  4. Use this online RPE Calculator to work out your weight levels for your sets; this tool will show you how much you should lift, based upon your target RPE and set count.
  5. Adjust this as needed, to factor in your resistance training. That is, use the calculator as many times as needed, to dial in your RPE for each session. The weight and sets of one session may not be the same for the next – but this is the benefit of RPE training, it ensures you are targeting proper exertion levels, not blindly following numbers on the sides of weight plates.
  6. When you can reach the top of the rep range for your RPE goal, move up in weight.
  7. Perform this routine for three weeks, before moving to a de-load routine on the fourth. This will help give your body proper rest and recovery in order to benefit from the performance rate of perceived exertion.

Your performance can improve using this method by either increasing RPE levels over the course of your training program; or through intensity, where the increase is on the load lifted. Flow High Performance offers a great, and easy to follow breakdown video here.

-Train Hard!

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