Whether you’re hitting the road to prepare for a half marathon or at the gym trying to hit your personal best in squats, chances are you’ve heard (or read) the term RPE during your training. And while you may have the gist of its meaning – RPE stands for the degree of perceived exertionafter all – there is so much more to know about the scale and how it can help you perform at your best.
A popular point of reference for coaches and instructors alike, RPE (in the most basic terms) is for determining how much effort you expend while exercising, explains Meg Takacs, NASM-CPT, an RRCA-certified running coach and CrossFit trainer. RPE is usually measured on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is no exertion and 10 is a total feeling.
Meet the experts: Gordon Bakoulis is an RRCA-certified running coach with New York Road Runners. She has qualified for several Olympic marathon trials and has run more than 35 marathons. Meg Takacs, NASM-CPT, is an RRCA-certified running coach and CrossFit trainer. She is also the founder of the guided audio coaching app Run With Meg.
Yes, RPE is based on “feeling,” explains Gordon Bakoulisan RRCA-certified running coach with New York Road Runners and several qualifiers for Olympic trials. “It’s self-monitored,” Bakoulis explains. “It’s one’s own sense of how hard one works.” RPE is a “universal tool”, meaning it can be used by all genders and ages, no equipment required.
It’s important to use RPE when tracking your workouts because there are so many variables that can affect your performance on a daily basis: weather, soreness, nutrition, hydration, mood, and more, says Bakoulis. What weight, speed, or distance feels like an all-out effort one day may feel easier the next, depending on all of these factors. Using RPE helps you take all aspects into account – making your training more personal to you and helping you build fitness in a healthy, injury-free progression.
Want to learn more about RPE, what it is and how to measure it in your own efforts? Read on for everything you need to know about how to use rate of perceived exertion correctly, according to expert trainers and coaches.
How to measure RPE
RPE is measured on a scale of one to 10 and is based largely on sensation. That said, sometimes the word “emotion” is vague, so you can also think of it this way: One of the easiest ways to measure how you’re feeling is your heart rate, says Takacs. That means the lower your heart rate, the less energy/effort you’re likely to use to complete your workout, she adds. The higher your heart rate, the more likely you are to work your butt and have a higher value on that scale. Are you following?
If you don’t wear a heart rate monitor when you exercise, it’s no problem. You can also base RPE on the messages your body is sending you, says Bakoulis, answering these key questions:
- Are your legs very sore, making it difficult to move?
- Is there an aggressive wind or rain (or other weather) preventing your body from moving quickly?
- Has your job drained your energy levels today?
All of these responses are valid measures of exertion and contribute to your overall sensation, meaning they factor into correctly assessing RPE.
The RPE scale
In addition to knowing whether a workout feels “hard” or “easy,” there’s a specific measurement scale for RPE, according to Bakoulis. You can use this scale to accurately measure your intensity and compare the feeling of different sessions:
- 1-3 RPE: To begin with, level one is the same as lying on the couch and relaxing. Anything beyond this is a very low, simple effort. For example, there could be a rest interval between harder training efforts so you can catch your breath before starting again.
- 4-6 RPE: This is an intermediate range and what Bakoulis calls “somewhat difficult” or “comfortably difficult.” It can be used for a recovery interval or a slow workout like you would do on a light training day. Ultimately, it should be an effort level that you could sustain for an extended period of time if needed, and you should also be able to hold a conversation at this RPE.
- 7-9 RPE: This is where things get demonstrably “tough,” says Bakoulis, with Level 9 being an extremely difficult, all-out effort. Your heart rate is high, you’re breathing heavily, and you can feel lactic acid (AKA, soreness) building up in your body from the strain. Think of this as a sprint, lifting your max weight, cycling up a huge hill, etc.
- 10 RPE: This is your complete effort at the level of exhaustion, which you would only meet during the end of a race, competition or personal best lifting test. It’s the feeling of completely weakening your body. “When you’re at 10, you can’t possibly push your body any harder,” Bakoulis says.
Benefits of RPE
Now that you’re more up-to-date on RPE and the different ways you can use it to measure the effort of your workouts, it’s time to get into the specific benefits. The following are reasons why RPE is an ideal metric for tracking your training goals, according to expert trainers.
- You can easily measure your effort level. There is a high correlation between a person’s RPE rating and their actual heart rate, making it an excellent indicator of how much effort you’re putting into a workout without having professional tools next to you to measure, reports Center for Disease Control.
- It can help heart health. If you have a heart condition that requires you to take heart medication, your doctor will likely tell you to monitor your heart rate regularly, especially during exercise. The RPE scale is a great way to ensure you’re not dangerously overdoing it while still getting the exercise you need, studies indicate.
- There is less risk of injury. “You increase the risk of injury by training more intensely,” says Takacs. With RPE, you can better gauge your efforts, keeping them at a more manageable intensity so you don’t overexert yourself and get injured.
- It stands for your environment. “Running an eight-minute mile uphill will feel different than walking an eight-minute pace on flat ground,” says Bakoulis. RPE accounts for how your immediate environment or daily body conditions can affect how a workout goes, while going by pace, mileage, weight, or reps simply doesn’t.
Limitations of RPE
While there are plenty of benefits to using RPE during your workouts, there are also some limitations to the metric that you should note. Some of the possible downsides to watch out for include:
- It can derail your strategy. Whether you’re running a long race or starting a tough lifting session, you may feel compelled to go harder at first because you feel “good” and “fresh” at the start of a workout, says Takacs. This is where listening to your body has its limits – you don’t want to drain all your energy for exertion too soon. Be smart about your strategy and go slower than you need to at the start of a longer, drawn-out effort to ensure you can actually make it to the finish line.
- Beginners get irritated at a lower RPE. Look, it makes sense if you really want to feel the intensity of your workouts by exerting yourself at a high RPE each time. But contrary to what you might think, spend more time on one lower RPE is actually what helps you increase your performance by building your base fitness level, says Takacs. So don’t skip out on the easier training days – they’re just as important as high RPE sessions.
- It may not be as accurate as the technique. Going off of what your body feels may not be as accurate as having a powerful watch that can give you metrics like your heart rate zone, VO2 max, exact pace, sleep level, recovery recommendations and more. But “RPE empowers people,” Bakoulis explains. There is something to be said for going away from what feels best for your body (which people so often ignore…), regardless of what a fitness tracker indicates.
How to use RPE during training sessions
All the ins and outs of RPE may still sound a bit theoretical, and you’re probably ready to learn exactly how to use it IRL during your various workouts. Here are some examples of what kind of RPE level might be best for your specific session…
- Weight Training: When it comes to strength-based workouts, “go for the low-hanging fruit first,” explains Takacs. This means you want to start in a low RPE zone (anywhere from 1-3 to 4-6) before building up to harder efforts (7-9) towards the end of your workout to gradually build strength. You can cool down and stretch at resting RPE to finish. This applies to training such as: weight lifting, training sessions, yoga, mountain climbing and the like.
- Speed work: For a speed-based workout, you want to start your RPE low by doing a warm-up (which can include jumps, steps, dynamic stretches, jogging, etc.) at a relaxed level, around 4-6 on the RPE scale, says Bakoulis. You then get into that 7-9 range when you do your actual speed work. (And FYI, during the rest intervals of your speed work, you’ll want to go back to the relaxed RPE.) After you finish your speed workout, you’ll cool down to a low RPE again. Speed work can include workouts such as running, cycling, indoor cycling, swimming and HIIT.
- Build Endurance: You can’t maximize your endurance without training at a lower intensity, says Takacs. This means that endurance-based workouts typically involve working at a lower RPE (4-6 range) for most of the session. You can also train for a longer period of time. Towards the end of your workout, you’ll likely creep into the higher RPE range as your energy depletes. As always, you can cool down in the lowest RPE range to easily enter recovery mode. Endurance training can include: running, cycling, swimming, walking and the like.
Conclusion: RPE means rate of perceived exertion, and it’s often used during a variety of workouts to recognize the level of effort you’re putting into a workout, experts say. It can be a strengthening exercise tool for people of all ages and genders.
Madeline Howard is a writer, editor and creative based in Brooklyn. Her work has been published in Esquire, Nylon, Cosmopolitan and more. She was, among other things, a former editor at Women’s Health. Subscribe to her “hey howie” newsletter at madelinehoward.substack.com.