If you’re the fitness type, chances are you’ve got all your latest PRs, measurements and scores scribbled (or typed) into your workout log. And that’s great; it shows you care about getting stronger, faster and fitter with each and every exercise session.
However, there’s one subjective — albeit critical — number fitness junkies tend to overlook in favor of hard, concrete figures: rating of perceived exertion (RPE), or how hard you feel your body is working.
RPE is a way of gauging all the signals your body is sending you during a workout, from heart rate to sweat to muscle fatigue. Paying attention to these signals will not only clue you in on times you need to push harder, but also times when you need to back off.
By tracking your perceived exertion, you’ll be better able to manipulate your workload and intensity to boost fitness and prevent burnout, explains John C. Garner, PhD, certified strength and conditioning specialist, professor and chair of the kinesiology and health promotion department at Troy University.
For example, say you planned a moderate-intensity, 60% effort run, but then life and life’s stressors made that 60% feel more like 75%. Make a note of this and take the intensity down a notch during your next run. Or, if you notice a weight you once struggled to lift for a full 8 reps suddenly feels lighter than usual, track it so you’ll know you’re making progress. And while you’re at it, increase the reps or grab a heavier set of dumbbells so you feel challenged again.
HOW TO TRACK YOUR PERCEIVED EXERTION
You can measure your perceived exertion level with one of two different scales: the Borg rating of perceived exertion (RPE) scale, or a basic 1-to-10 scale.
“The cool thing about the RPE scale is it’s something everyone can use, from beginners to high-level powerlifters,” says Joel Seedman, PhD, exercise physiologist and owner of Advanced Human Performance.
The Borg scale ranges from 6–20, where a rating of six corresponds to “no exertion” and 20 refers to “maximum exertion.” (Pro tip: If you multiply your Borg scale rating by 10, you’ll likely find it corresponds to your heart rate at that intensity.) So, if you’ve planned a moderate-intensity cardio session, you’ll want to stay within a rating of 12–14 (120–140 beats per minute) or “somewhat hard.” If you suddenly feel like you’re working at a 15–16, slow it down. Meanwhile, a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) circuit would likely put you in a range of 15–17 (150–170 beats per minute). If that HIIT session starts putting you at a 13–14, kick it up a notch.
However, you may find it easier to use the simplified 1-to-10 scale for rating exertion, where 1 corresponds to sitting on the couch while 10 refers to an all-out sprint. With this shortened scale, each number corresponds to a percentage of your one-rep max or the most weight you can lift for a single rep. So, a 7 is 70% of your one-rep max, 8 is 80% and so on.
If you’re strength training, aim to stay within a rating of 6–8. According to Seedman, this range ensures you’re working hard enough to elicit a training response without working so hard that your form breaks down.
For cardio sessions, you could work anywhere from a rating of 6 (or 60% intensity) for a moderate-intensity run, all the way up to a 9–10 for quick bursts of all-out cardio. But on a recovery day, try to stick to a level of 4 or 5, Seedman says.
WAYS TO MANIPULATE RPE
Keep in mind: The RPE scale can be modified to help you reach specific goals. For example, if your goal is pure strength, you can decrease the level of intensity by manipulating rep schemes instead of reducing weight, Seedman says. Meanwhile, if you’re looking to gain muscular endurance, you’ll want to decrease intensity by lowering weight instead of reps.
However, since tracking RPE for each and every exercise can be both painstaking and unnecessary, Seedman recommends only paying attention to your exertion level during foundational exercises or bigger movements like squats, deadlifts, bench presses and lat pull-downs, along with higher-intensity cardio and recovery sessions. In other words, don’t bother tracking your RPE for a set of bicep curls or crunches.
If you track your workouts the old-school way (Read: pen and paper), add a column for RPE. And if you use an app, type your RPE scores into the “notes” section. Try to stay consistent with your tracking, as the more information you have, the better you’ll be able to structure your workouts to continue seeing progress.