How to program without knowing your 1RM.


RPE or Rating of Perceived Exertion, is becoming increasingly popular and is prevalent throughout various training programs. It is most widely seen on social media, with people writing captions such as “220 x 2 @ 8” or “180 x 1 @ 7”. To the unknown, these numbers simply make little to no sense. So, what does RPE really mean and how can it effectively be used in power lifting?

In the past, training loads were determined by a specific percentage of an athletes one rep max [1]. For example, >85% 1RM for strength adaptations, 70-85% for power, 67-85% for hypertrophy and <67% for muscular endurance [2].

However, percentage based programming is unable to consider variations in performance and daily changing biological and physical factors, such as sleep, stress and nutrition, all of which impact readiness [3]. Neither does it consider an individual’s level of performance adaptation or recovery [3]. What this can lead to, is a 1RM that is based off an abnormal performance and prescribed loads that result in inadequate training stimulus, leading to the inability to activate the desired neuromuscular stimuli for optimal training adaptation [3, 1]. – E.G, the incorrect weight or volume to make gains.

RPE based programs , do not base training loads off %1RM, but rather a auto-regulatory, Reps In Reserve-Rating of Perceived Exertion system. The system utilities the following principles. RPE 10, is a maximal effort lift, with 0 reps left in the tank, RPE 9 is a near maximal lift with one rep left in the tank, RPE 8, two reps left and so on (refer to table 1) [3]. What can also be utilized is a point five rating (.5), which correlates to being able to potentially do X amount of reps with additional load. For example an RPE of 8.5, responds to an individual not being able to perform more than two extra reps at the end of a set, but could have performed that same set of two reps with an additional 2.5-5kg’s of load.

What makes this auto-regulatory system more advantageous for powerlifting and resistance training in general, is that it does consider daily variation in an athlete’s ability. RPE allows for loads to be prescribed  based off an individual’s changing biological and physical factors , recent performance and daily variations in readiness [1]. This could potentially lead to greater long term, sustainable progress. This is because it ensures that an athlete does not over exert themselves, risk burning out or a potential injury, as the result of trying to hit a prescribed load on a sub-maximal training day, in which they are tired, underfeed or dehydrated [1,3,4]. In comparison, it allows an individual to effectively take advantage of days, weeks or training blocks, in which they are performing above maximally. Allowing them to utilize heavier than prescribed loads and accumulate greater volume, resulting in more gains [1,3,4].

How can you use RPE to get the most out of your training?

Though use of the RPE scale is effective, it should not be used as the sole means of prescribing load, until an individual is familiar with the scale and their degree of exertion and every given value [3]. In order to begin utilizing the scale, intensities should be prescribed off a previous 1RM, with an additional RPE value accompanied. For example, an individual could aim to do 4 sets of 8 reps at 65-70% 1RM, with an accompanied RPE of 8-9 (1-2 reps in reserve). This will give the individual a weight to aim for, that is ultimately determined by the readiness and capability of the  individual [3]. Following a period of this combined approach, the load may be prescribed based off RPE alone, for example 4 sets of 8 reps at RPE 8, in which the individual is free to auto-regulate his or her intensity  [3].

Additionally, RPE can be effectively used to periodize a strength training program.  This can be achieved by assigning different values to a given training day or block, that correlate to a desired adaptation. For example, if an individual is utilizing a daily undulating approach, they may have determined, “Volume”, “recovery” and “strength” days. The hypertrophy day could utilize RPE’s ranging from 8-10 with 6-12 rep ranges [3]. On this day, it is important to note that the higher the reps & RPE, the greater potential muscular damage, where as the lower the reps and higher the RPE, the greater potential central nervous system damage. For example, a set of 12 reps at an RPE of 10, would cause a great deal of muscular breakdown and damage, with little nervous system breakdown and vise versa. Therefore it is important to vary RPEs at every given rep range, to ensure optimal recovery between training days and weeks. Following the “volume day”, there may be a “recovery day” that uses sets of 1-5 reps at an RPE of 6-8. Allowing for a reduction in fatigue and recovery of both the nervous and musculoskeletal system, to prevent burnout  [3]. Whereas the “strength” day would coincide with rep ranges betwen 1-6 and RPE values of 7-10 [3]. For “strength”, it is important to note than an individual aiming to increase their 1RM, needs to be familiar with training at an RPE of 10 [3]. However, training loads used greater than 90% of 1RM or that are close to an RPE10, over a prolonged period, cause greater damage and can inhibit maximal strength. Therefore, the best approach to take, is for an individual to be exposed to the various RPE’s and rep ranges across the spectrum [3].


In conclusion RPE is a great method of prescribing training loads for a variety of performance adaptations. Give it a go yourself, but be cautious as it is most effectively used in conjunction with a % of 1RM, for those who are not familiar with the system.


  1. Zourdos, M. C., Klemp, A., Dolan, C., Quiles, J. M., Schau, K. A., Jo, E., … & Blanco, R. (2016). Novel Resistance Training–Specific Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale Measuring Repetitions in Reserve.The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research30(1), 267-275.
  2. Haff, G. G., & Triplett, N. T. (Eds.). (2015).Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning 4th Edition. Human kinetics.
  3. 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 Journal38(4), 42.
  4. Helms, E. R., Storey, A., Cross, M. R., Brown, S. R., Lenetsky, S., Ramsay, H., … & Zourdos, M. C. (2016). RPE and Velocity Relationships for the Back Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift in Powerlifters.Journal of strength and conditioning research.


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