Why and how you should test your RPE max

Tom Hamilton was the World Drug Free Powerlifting Federation champion in 2016, with a 665kg total in the 82.5kg weight category. He works out of W10 Performance in London

In any strength training programme, it’s natural to want to know where you are from week to week, and it can be tempting to throw down in every single session to better what you’ve done before. But there’s a problem – even if you aren’t doing singles (which typically aren’t the best way to build strength), even doing ‘rep’ maxes can leave you feeling fatigued and contribute to burnout if you’re doing them in most of your sessions. By pushing harder, you’re going to limit yourself over time.

This is where an ‘RPE’ max can come in handy. Just as a refresher, the Rate of Perceived Exertion scale is used to measure the intensity of exercise, and typically runs from 0 – 10 – where 1 is almost laughably easy and 10 is an all-out effort, the kind of thing you save for competition or lifting a car off a baby.

Knowing this, a nice way of testing within a programme without needing a huge buildup or a massive deload afterwards is to work with RPE sets on a regular basis. For instance, I might test myself with a heavy set of one or two reps, but do it at a weight that feels like I still have one or two in the tank: that’s likely to feel like an 8 or a 9, but if it feels even easier, you know you’re making progress, and you’re not going to smash your CNS.

Controlling arousal
Just how hyped you need to get for each lift is, to some degree, personality dependent. Some people are wired and crazy all the time, but most people should try to treat training sessions as just that: training. Even getting really hyped up is going to feed into your stress that affects training for the next week, or the next session. This is another place where an RPE max can help: you shouldn’t feel like you have to get really hyped to hit the numbers on your programme, and you should find a system that lets you push yourself without punching the walls and eating chalk. Focusing on your RPE can do that: strive to lift more, with less arousal. 

Programming RPE
If you’re on a strength phase, you might want to programme specifically with your RPE in mind. For instance, you might work up to a heavy set of three at an RPE of 9, and then you might do 3 sets of 3 at a percentage of that, or at 15% off what your perceived ‘top’ set is.

An advantage of doing something ‘sort of’ heavy every week is that it becomes normal to you. There’s a time and a place to be fired up, but if it becomes regular to lift that heavy weight, it becomes normal to you. And if you know you can get it done without screaming and shouting, then you’ll have plenty left in the tank when it really matters.