RPE is the best way to track your workouts (no fitness watch needed)

rpe
RPE could be more useful than a fitness trackerPeopleImages

Granted, fitness trackers can give you a rough idea as to how hard a workout was, but experts say that RPE, a.k.a. your Rate of Perceived Exertion could be a more useful reference. RPE is a self-monitored scale of how hard a workout feels, accounting for everything from the weather and your mood to how much sleep you’ve had and any pre-workout supplements you’ve taken. Fitness watches, on the other hand, are typically based on little more than your heart rate, which is influenced by various factors such as where you are in your menstrual cycle, stress, and the coffee you necked before hitting the gym.

Think about it. Your workout may not be any harder, but if you're already stressed from work, your heart rate will probably track higher. Similarly, if you’re suffering with DOMS so sore you’d rather stand than endure the pain of sitting down, a HIIT session will naturally feel harder.

Using your intuition and adapting your routine to your RPE could give you a better understanding of both when you’re overdoing it and in need of a rest day, and when you’re in a position to really give a workout your all, without running the risk of injury. So, we caught up with strength and conditioning coaches Andy Vincent and Darran Lightbody, who both use RPE with their clients, to learn more about what RPE is, how to measure RPE, and how it could help you maximise your results.

RPE meaning

RPE stands for the Rate of Perceived Exertion, and Lightbody says it's about 'personalising a workout programme'.

'It’s a way of personally rating how hard you find a specific activity or exercise,’ he says. It’s entirely subjective, meaning it enables you to self-regulate your training intensity without the need for a fitness tracker. Measuring your RPE will become easier over time; the more training experience you have, the better you will be at interpreting your own RPE.

Lightbody adds: ‘RPE can be employed by everyone, but my only caveat would be for older people (50+) who don’t train regularly. It’s hard to know their limits when they haven’t been pushed to them before, so on top of the fact that their joints and bones are weaker, they’re more susceptible to injury.’

RPE scales

The Borg Scale

The OG RPE scale was developed in 1982 by Swedish researcher Gunnar Borg, to determine an individual’s level of exertion during physical activity. This was known as the Borg Scale, and had a range of 6 to 20 (6 meaning no exertion whatsoever, 20 meaning maximum effort).

‘The original Borg scale was used as a way of measuring an individual’s heart rate,’ Vincent explains. ‘You’d select your score between 6 and 20, then multiply that by 10 to find your heart rate.’

For example. If your RPE is 12, you’d do 12 x 10 = 120 beats per minute.

Now, as mentioned, your heart rate is determined by various underlying factors, so it doesn’t necessarily provide a reliable picture of how hard a workout might be for you. What’s more, Lightbody says the Borg Scale (and focussing solely on your heart rate) isn’t compatible with resistance training.

‘As it corresponds to a person’s heart rate and your heart rate and resistance training aren’t as strongly correlated as your heart rate is to aerobic exercise, it doesn’t reflect how hard you may find resistance training,’ he tells WH.

Say you’re doing a heavy leg day; your heart rate is probably not going to be as high as it would be during an interval run because the nature of strength training means that your heart, and therefore your blood, aren’t pumping as fast since you move slower. But for some of you, you may well find running easier than you do smashing out a series of deadlifts.

The RPE scale

The modified and most-commonly used RPE scale is known simply as the RPE scale. It ranges from 1 to 10, where 1 is the equivalent of watching Netflix with a chamomile tea, and 10 is legs shaking, can hardly stand up you’ve worked your butt so hard.

‘I suggest using the RPE scale,’ says Vincent. ‘We have fitness trackers to do what the Borg scale once aimed to do now, whereas the RPE scale is entirely subjective and can be applied to everything from strength training to cardio workouts.’

Lightbody concurs, adding that the RPE scale offers a more ‘holistic perception of the difficulty of your workouts’.

We’ll come onto exactly how to measure your RPE below, but one thing to keep in mind is that various sources on the t’internet contradict one another. Some say that the RPE scale should be based on nothing more than your breath, with 1 being deep, slow breathing, and 10 being very out of breath, but there are several physical sensations you can use to gauge your RPE.

How to calculate your RPE

At risk of sounding like a broken record, RPE is entirely subjective. No two people will have the same RPE for any one workout, whether your fitness level is exactly the same or not. You may have the exact same 5k PB with exactly the same splits, and you may have exactly the same 1RM for squats, deadlifts and chest press, but there’s no chance you’ll have the same RPE.

For that reason, working it out can seem harder; you haven’t got anyone else to compare stats with, after all, but we’re here to help. Vincent and Lightbody says these are the physical sensations that could help you get a hold of your RPE.

  • Breathlessness. Could you easily hold a conversation, or are you struggling to catch your breath?

  • Sweating. Are you excessively sweating, or could you go straight back to the office sans shower?

  • Muscle fatigue. How tired are they feeling? Can you do your usual rep range, or are you struggling?

  • Energy levels. Are you feeling particularly mentally drained, did you struggle with sleep, or are you in a position to smash your PB?

As for understanding why some workouts may feel worthy of a higher or lower rating on the RPE scale than usual, consider these external factors.

  • The quantity and quality of your sleep the night before

  • The quantity and quality of food you’ve eaten

  • Where you’re at in your menstrual cycle

  • How stressed you are

  • Whether you’ve taken a pre-workout (or coffee)

  • How much water you’ve consumed

  • The weather

  • Your mood

Most fitness watches only track three things: the speed, distance and duration of your workouts. These will certainly impact on how hard you find one particular sweat sesh, but add in just one of the variables from Vincent and Lightbody’s list above and it could make a workout you previously rated 4 on the RPE scale a 10.

And for any sceptics out there, know that tracking brands are on the way to integrating the factors above. Take Whoop. The brand revered for its recovery data also provides users with a daily ‘strain’ score based on the old-school Borg scale, whereby your strain is ‘calculated based on the length of time you spend in various heart rate zones’.

As we know, heart rate doesn’t offer much in isolation, but Whoop also provides a recovery score, based on a questionnaire it asks users every morning to help interpret the quality of their kip more holistically. Questions include: Did you take a magnesium supplement? Did you get outdoors in daylight yesterday? Did you feel stress yesterday?

Likewise, the latest Apple Watch Series 8 tracks the quality of your sleep according to different sleep stages: awake, REM, core and deep, and uses a temperature sensor to determine which stage of your menstrual cycle you're at. This data isn’t yet connected to any form of workout score, but having a tracker to help you identify each individual factor could make it easier to translate your RPE (while proving that these are all elements that influence your health and fitness).

Benefits of RPE

It’s not just about saving yourself a few bob on a fitness watch amid the cost of living crisis. Here’s what Vincent and Lightbody say RPE could do for you.

1.It helps you measure your progress

‘Monitoring the intensity of your workouts is an excellent way to measure progress,’ says Vincent. ‘If you’re working at beating a 5k run time, some days you might have less energy and be off the pace, but that doesn’t mean you’re not progressing. An effort-based score will help you understand why your run may have felt harder.’

2. It helps you achieve your goals, safely

‘Measuring your RPE can give you a good idea as to whether you’re ready to push your workouts further. Say you’re targeting a sub-20-min 2k row. The first time you reach 2k (regardless of time) might feel like a 9 on the RPE scale; you should stick at this pace until it feels like a 7, before attempting to go any faster,’ Vincent advises.

3. It prevents training plateaus

‘Without tracking RPE, some of my clients forget how challenging their training used to be and how it now feels a lot easier as they’ve developed over time. By measuring their RPE, it motivates them to push harder and stimulate themselves enough to progress, whether that be in the form of muscle growth by lifting more, or endurance and cardio by running further and faster,’ Lightbody tells WH.

4. It encourages you to regularly adapt your training

‘The RPE scale allows you to adapt and choose your load or intensity of your workout based on how you’re feeling that day, or after your warm-up or first set, rather than sticking to the same rep range and/or weights that you do usually. Adapting is key,’ says Lightbody.

5. It helps prevent injury and burn-out

‘Tracking your RPE means you’re unlikely to overtrain and push too hard, since it takes into account the external factors we’ve discussed, rather than just relying on your heart rate,’ says Lightbody. ‘In doing so, you’re less likely to injure yourself or reach burn-out.’

6. It helps you understand when recovery is needed

‘If you’re training hard and progressing, your sessions might always feel like a 9 or 10 on the RPE scale. Without the RPE scale, you’d probably just continue since progression would suggest you’re doing OK, but consistently working out at a rate of 9 or 10 is a sign that you need to implement a deload week. I’d recommend one of these every 6-10 weeks, but as with the RPE scale, this is very subjective. Think about how tired you’re feeling; if you’re exhausted after every workout and it’s starting to affect your sleep and mood, now’s definitely the time,’ says Vincent.

How to use RPE for different workouts

We asked Vincent and Lightbody to provide us with the recommended RPE for each type of workout: strength training, running, HIIT, walking, Pilates and yoga. ‘These depend on your goal and experience, but could be useful as a rough guide of how hard you should be working,’ says Lightbody.

Strength training: 6-9 RPE

‘It’s at this point that you will be lifting enough load or working with enough resistance to activate and strengthen the muscles that you are working,’ says Lightbody. A good way to grasp this is via the number of reps you can complete; if you could manage another 2 or 3 after your set, you’re probably at an RPE of 8, if there’s no possible way you could do another 1, you’re at 10.

Running: 4-10 RPE

‘This very much depends on the type of running you’re doing,’ says Vincent. ‘Interval runs will be higher, while steady, slow runs will be lower.’ Lightbody adds, ‘With running, I’m a big believer in the 80/20 rule. 80% should be at a low RPE (3-5), while 20% should be at an RPE of 5+.)’

HIIT: 9-10 RPE

‘When performed correctly, you should give HIIT max effort,’ says Lightbody. ‘You should perform every round of exercise at max effort, then take a rest period that’s four times the duration of the exercise period, so that you can give every exercise interval everything you've got.’

Walking: 3-4 RPE

‘Think of this as active recovery,’ says Lightbody. ‘You should be able to hold a conversation, but you’ll be more out of breath than you were if you were lying down.’

Pilates: 3-6 RPE

‘This would depend on the type of Pilates you’re doing; dynamic reformer Pilates might feel higher on the RPE scale, compared to Pilates stretching, for example.’

Yoga: 2-8 RPE

‘I’ve done some yoga classes where I’ve been sweating buckets,’ says Lightbody. ‘But it’s often used as another form of active recovery. Again, it depends on which type of yoga you’re doing.’

Check out our guide to hot yoga and the best yoga studios to try in London.

So, are there any limitations to RPE?

The benefits outweigh the cons of tracking your RPE, but there are a few drawbacks that both Vincent and Lightbody cite.

  • It may lack accuracy. ‘As mentioned, RPE can be tricky to gauge once you start out,’ says Lightbody. ‘It take time and practice; the more familiar you are with the different RPE ratings and what they equate to, the easier it will become,’ adds Vincent.

  • It doesn’t reflect skill. ‘When performing exercises that require a high skill level, like a clean and jerk, you may well fail at the lift but still have a low RPE. Skill is a different kind of effort that the RPE scale doesn’t represent.’

  • It may cloud your strategy. ‘If you have a goal in mind, remember that performance metrics like speed, distance and load are still useful. RPE isn’t binary; all the data should be used together,’ Vincent explains.

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