How to use RPE to increase strength

How to use RPE to Increase Strength

How to use RPE to Increase Strength: the ultimate guide.

By Coach Hunter Bennett

What is RPE?

RPE stands for “ratings of perceived exertion.”

As you might it expect, it provides a way to measure how hard you feel you are working.

With respect to weight training, RPE provides an objective measure of proximity to failure. Or more specifically, of how many more reps you feel you could complete within a given set.

The chart below outlines the RPE scale most used in resistance training.


As an example, if you squat 100kg for three reps, and feel as if you could have done another 2 reps, you would rate that set an RPE 8.

If you felt you could have done 3 more reps, then you would rate it a 7.

And if you knew you could do 2 more reps, and felt you could maybe do 3 reps, then it would be an RPE 7.5.

You get the picture.

Why use RPE for strength training?

There are a couple of key reasons why you should use RPE with strength training.

1. RPE Ensures Training Effectiveness

We know that keeping 2-4 reps in the tank (RPE 6-8) seems to be optimal for strength development.

We also know that keeping 1-3 reps in the tank (RPE 7-9) is a good spot to maximize muscle growth.

With that in mind, RPE gives you an objective way of making sure that you fall within these ranges. This ensures that your training quality remains high every set.

Which can improve progress over time.

2. RPE Facilitates Autoregulation

Some days you will enter the gym feeling flat.

Whether it’s due to life stress, poor sleep, or too many beers the night before, it doesn’t matter.

If you feel bad, then your performance in the gym is probably going to be down.

For example, if you were super recovered and benched 80kg for 8 reps at an RPE 8 last week, this might indicate a good performance. However, after a huge weekend, 70kg for 8 reps might be an RPE 8.

If you didn’t use RPE to guide your training, you might try and push for 80kg (or even more) to beat your previous week.

This would not only take you out of the “effective” RPE range, but the likelihood of you hitting 8 reps would be extremely low.

In fact, you would probably fail at rep 5 or 6.

Making this training session less effective, while inducing a lot of unnecessary fatigue that can impact your next session negatively.

Not good.

But, by autoregulating your loads using RPE, you can accommodate for declines in performance and ensure you apply an appropriate amount of stress for your body. This reduces the risk of “overstressing” your body and blunting progress.

But I should note that the reverse is also true.

There are some days where you will hit the gym feeling a million bucks. Days where the weights feel lighter. On these days you will end up being able to use heavier loads at a given RPE, which increases the weight of your working sets.

In this manner, RPE also allows you capitalise on “good” days and accelerate progress.

3. RPE Increases Strength Gains

As alluded to above, the process of adjusting your training to match your performance is known as “autoregulation.”

And autoregulation appears to improve the results of training.

A recent meta-analysis (a study combining results of multiple different studies) pooled the results of 8 studies comparing weight training programs using autoregulation against programs that used more traditional “fixed” loading methods (i.e., rigidly sticking to the plan even if you feel off).

Importantly, they found that autoregulated methods result in significantly larger improvements in strength.

Moreover, these programs did not differ in terms of volume. The only real point of difference was the autoregulation of load.

All of which suggest that when done effectively, using RPE can increase strength gains in a BIG way.

How to use RPE for strength training

Before anything else, I want to say that you are already somewhat using RPE in your training.

After each set, you probably identify how hard it was. You may even think about how many more reps you could have done, and whether you should increase the weight next set.

Well, RPE simply provides a way to formalise this process.

After each set, gauge how difficult it was.

If it was outside your target RPE range, then adjust the weight accordingly and perform your next set.

And then hopefully next week the weight increases for the same RPE, indicating progress.

Repeat this process every set, and you are using RPE.

How to program using RPE

As outlined in the previous section, using RPE is simple.

Complete a set, rate its difficulty using RPE, rinse and repeat.

But when it comes to programming using RPE, there are a couple of different approaches you can take.

1. RPE stays constant across a training block

If we know that RPE 7 is the middle ground for effective strength training, and RPE 8 is the middle ground for effective hypertrophy training, we could simply program every week with the same RPE.

For example:

Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
Squat 3 x 5 @ RPE 7 3 x 5 @ RPE 7 3 x 5 @ RPE 7 3 x 5 @ RPE 7
RDL 3 x 6 @ RPE 7 3 x 6 @ RPE 7 3 x 6 @ RPE 7 3 x 6 @ RPE 7
Split Squat 3 x 10 @ RPE 8 3 x 10 @ RPE 8 3 x 10 @ RPE 8 3 x 10 @ RPE 8


In this scenario, while RPE remains static, we would hope to see the load increase weekly as you get stronger. After week 4, you deload, and then repeat the process again with different exercises or different rep ranges.

However, some people do find this approach a little “lacking” in terms of excitement.

2. RPE increases across the training block

Another approach that you can take is to gradually increase your RPE across a training block. Within this the RPE can stay within its “effective” range, while ensuring load increases each week.

For example:

Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
Squat 3 x 5 @ RPE 6 3 x 5 @ RPE 7 3 x 5 @ RPE 8 3 x 5 @ RPE 9
RDL 3 x 6 @ RPE 6 3 x 6 @ RPE 7 3 x 6 @ RPE 8 3 x 6 @ RPE 9
Split Squat 3 x 10 @ RPE 7 3 x 10 @ RPE 8 3 x 10 @ RPE 9 3 x 10 @ RPE 9.5


While this approach is not much different to the one above (the average RPE is much the same across the block), it does seem to help increase motivation by giving people a “peak” week where they can really push themselves.

This is particularly useful for those people who find constant RPE prescription a little boring.

3. Top set into backdown sets

The last tool I am going to discuss is performing a heavy “top set”, which is then followed by some easier “backdown” sets.

This is an approach that can be used within either of the above progression methods for your main exercise for the day.

This approach will have you perform a heavy set of 1-5 reps at an RPE of 6-9. After that, you will strip some weight off the bar and perform 2-4 lighter sets.

This lets you practice using heavier loads, which is great for strength and skill development. Then the lighter sets allow you to accumulate volume and focus on technique.

An example of this may look like:

Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
Squat 1 x 3 @ RPE 7

3 x 5 (take 15% off your top set)

1 x 3 @ RPE 7.5

3 x 5 (take 15% off your top set)

1 x 3 @ RPE 8

3 x 5 (take 15% off your top set)

1 x 3 @ RPE 8.5

3 x 5 (take 15% off your top set)


This is something that I would only use for your primary movement of the day. After which you can use the “simpler” method for your accessory exercises.

What are the cons of RPE?

While RPE is simple to use, there are some considerations that ensure it is used effectively.

You need to rate RPE accurately to get the most out of it.

If you are someone who likes to push hard, and as a result, consistently underrate your RPE, you may accrue so much fatigue that it hinders your long-term progress.

Conversely, if you are someone who perceives a set to be harder than it is (i.e., you overrate your RPE), then the training you complete may not be effective.

One way to improve RPE accuracy is to simply push a set to failure every now and then. This can help identify what an RPE 10 truly is, making your RPE ratings more accurate.

For compound exercises, this is something I would leave until the end of a block (i.e., last exercise of your last session).

For accessory exercises, you could do your last set to failure every 1-2 sessions without any real impact.

Additionally, RPE ratings tend to get a little less accurate for higher rep sets. With that in mind, I would suggest only using RPE for sets of 1-12 reps.

How to use RPE to increase strength: Summary

RPE is a fantastic tool that allows you to ensure your training remains effective. It also allows you to autoregulate your training, which can lead to better long-term progress.

Just make sure you are rating your RPE accurately to make the most of it!

And if you are keen to try some RPE-driven training, check out some of our programs.

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