12 July 2021
An Alternative to RPE for Beginners
by Alexander Dellaportas Autoregulation has been the talk of the town amongst the evidence-based community over the past decade. The idea that we should adjust our training based on our ability within a session makes sense, and rightfully so. Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) based on Repetitions in Reserve (RIR), has become an extremely popular…
by Alexander Dellaportas
Autoregulation has been the talk of the town amongst the evidence-based community over the past decade. The idea that we should adjust our training based on our ability within a session makes sense, and rightfully so. Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) based on Repetitions in Reserve (RIR), has become an extremely popular autoregulative tool for prescribing intensity within training programs that allows athletes to adjust training loads on the fly to ensure they elicit the desired stimulus. Its widespread use spans from everyday gym goers through to competitive bodybuilders and powerlifters, and despite being endorsed by leading coaches and elite athletes, this system doesn’t suit everyone, all of the time. This article will explore whether or not RPE is appropriate for beginner lifters and provide an alternative strategy that you can implement right away.
It is important to firstly establish why autoregulation is so important and why RIR-based RPE has taken off. When devising a resistance training program, individualisation is an important principle to consider in order to improve fitness qualities [1, 2] and individualised training programs have been shown to be more effective in achieving training outcomes when compared to non-individualised training .
What is autoregulation and RPE?
Autoregulation is a method used to individualise training based on day-to-day readiness . This means that a lifter will perform at an intensity relative to their ability on a given day, rather than a predetermined load generated from a past performance. The RIR-based RPE scale is one of the latest iterations of the RPE scale which is commonly used in the lifting community. This scale spans from 1-10 with values corresponding to repetitions in reserve (Table 1). RPE values are used to assist the lifter in selecting appropriate loads and to quantify within-set effort otherwise known as ‘proximity to failure’. Essentially, this scale is a tool that helps people standardise the effort applied within a set, which is a measure of intensity. Better yet, no equipment or technology is required to use it – only an individual’s ability to subjectively rate their effort, which is both a feature and a bug of the system. Let’s explore.
The Pitfalls of RPE and It’s Utility For Beginner Lifters
The ability to accurately predict repetitions in reserve is an important component for the successful use of the RIR-based RPE method and a skill that often takes lifters years of practice to master. Without this ability, the effectiveness of the method is compromised. If a lifter regularly overshoots their RPE ratings, they risk accumulating too much fatigue too quickly. On the other hand, if a lifter constantly undershoots their ratings, they are likely leaving gains on the table and could otherwise be progressing faster.
Training experience is likely the most accurate predictor of an individual’s accuracy in estimating RPE. Several studies have indicated a more accurate estimation of RIR in more experienced lifters compared to less experienced [4, 5]. I don’t think many coaches observe a wildly different trend across their own clients. We generally see beginners undershoot rather than overshoot their RPEs, meaning that they think they are closer to failure than what they really are. As coaches, we constantly find ourselves telling beginner clients that they had more reps in them than they thought. So why do coaches use RPE with beginners?
A primary argument that has been made declares that rating RPE is a skill and needs to be developed. It makes sense, the more you practise a skill the better you’ll get at it, but how long does this actually take? For clients who come in with other physical activity experience or who take their training very seriously, this may not take long at all. However, I expect this process to take much longer for most general population clients who are new to resistance training. With that being said, the truth is that beginners don’t have to be perfectly accurate with RPE to make progress. If a beginner gives a rating of RPE 9 when their set was really a RPE 6, chances are that set was still productive given their training status. If that’s the case, what are beginners really getting out of using RPE? I put it down to the following:
- They learn that they can train based on how they feel on a given day
- They learn that they’re not supposed to train to failure
- They learn that there is a minimum intensity they should be working at
- They learn to work at different intensities for different exercises (e.g. compound vs isolation exercises)
- They learn that intensities can progress from week to week for an exercise
I think we can teach beginners these same 5 lessons without using RPE. In the beginning of their training journey, there are bigger rocks to address beyond intensity. First and foremost, adherence should be prioritised in a beginner’s program. This means that their program should be easy to follow and can be completed properly. At this same stage, beginners should be developing the foundation of their technique across exercises, and not be rushed by changes in intensity. If these two things can be ticked off, a beginner will progress irrespective of how accurate their RPE rating would be. I see RPE as an unnecessary complication in this initial phase.
The DIS as an Alternative to RPE
I should be clear, I don’t think that using RPE with beginners is a crime, but I’d much rather introduce it to my client later when they can hit the ground running. This then begs the question: if I don’t use RPE, how can I teach beginners the same lessons mentioned above? I’d like to introduce you to the following scale (Figure 1.).
For the purpose of this article, I’ll call it a Descriptive Intensity Scale (DIS). It’s hardly novel but isn’t often used for resistance training as it is not very specific. However, as we established, beginners don’t need pin-point accuracy for their intensities. I like to use this scale because it is very simple and easy to digest for beginners. It’s subjective of course, as is RPE, but removes the pressure of rating accurately – which the client is typically not capable of doing to begin with. Instead of quantifying effort via the RIR-based RPE scale, effort is qualified through the use of descriptive language that most lifters are familiar with. Now you may be wondering how this scale can be used to teach clients the same 5 lessons mentioned above. Well, it can do this because it can be prescribed in the exact same way you would prescribe RPE (see Example 1.)
It gets better. The transition into using RPE after using the DIS is very smooth as the DIS was already prescribed in a similar way. Intensity programming elements remain the same (made especially clear by keeping colours consistent), but now the client has specific RPE values to aim for (Example 2). The foundation has already been laid and now the client, with more training experience under their belt, can focus on accurately achieving RPE targets. This is a simple, yet easy strategy to frame intensity and allows for the lifter to build upon their ‘lifting knowledge’ as they become more advanced.
Furthermore, this model ties in nicely to the overall framework of an athlete’s long term development and places more importance on accurately quantifying intensity of effort as training age increases. As an athlete becomes more experienced with the DIS and inherently outgrows the obvious and in-built inaccuracies that come with qualifying their effort within a set, they are not only more capable of transitioning to the RIR-based RPE scale more smoothly, but are now utilising more precise effort ratings which is more important at the intermediate and advanced level than it is when they just started out.
I’ve been using this process for 2 years now and have seen great success and received positive feedback from clients. I initially started using this idea when I was working as a strength and conditioning coach in a state women’s football team. I started using RPE from the get-go but quickly realised that the 30 odd players in my control had very little to no training experience. RPE was not used well at all . This led me to break down what I needed the players to understand (the 5 lessons), and think about how else that information could be communicated.
If there’s one thing that I want you to get from this article, even if you don’t try using this system, it’s this: don’t fall into the trap of basing your coaching style on a single method or system. Identify the needs of your client, and if your methods aren’t well suited, start thinking outside of the box. Creative coaching is often the difference between achieving excellent or mediocre results with your clients and athletes.
- Borresen, J., & Lambert, M. I. (2009). The quantification of training load, the training response and the effect on performance. Sports medicine, 39(9), 779-795.
- Kiely, J. (2012). Periodization paradigms in the 21st century: evidence-led or tradition-driven? International journal of sports physiology and performance, 7(3), 242-250.
- Helms, E. R., Cronin, J., Storey, A., & Zourdos, M. C. (2016). Application of the repetitions in reserve-based rating of perceived exertion scale for resistance training. Strength and conditioning journal, 38(4), 42.
- Ormsbee, M. J., Carzoli, J. P., Klemp, A., Allman, B. R., Zourdos, M. C., Kim, J.-S., & Panton, L. B. (2019). Efficacy of the repetitions in reserve-based rating of perceived exertion for the bench press in experienced and novice benchers. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 33(2), 337-345.
- Steele, J., Endres, A., Fisher, J., Gentil, P., & Giessing, J. (2017). Ability to predict repetitions to momentary failure is not perfectly accurate, though improves with resistance training experience. PeerJ, 5, e4105.