Autoregulation: How to Properly Gauge RPE for Strength Training

If you regularly frequent strength gyms, or peruse enough fitness social media, you may have heard someone mention that they were “autoregulating their training”.  In that same sentence they may have also referenced a rating system called RPE (rating of perceived exertion) and how they are now using that to gauge their effort levels for training sessions.

“Autoregulation” and “RPE” are two popular fitness buzzwords that often get thrown around with little to no explanation causing undo stress and confusion for those new to strength training. The concept behind these two buzzwords, however, is rather straightforward and can be a useful way for anyone to monitor their training, as well as account for variable stressors outside of the gym such as sleep, stress levels, fatigue, work, etc.

Here’s how you can implement autoregulation and RPE into your training!

1. What is Autoregulation? 

Autoregulation refers to any training program which has a system in place to take into account how an athlete is feeling on a given training day. From a resistance training perspective this most usually means decisions like how much load will be used for a given movement, or how much rest time will be permitted are not made until the workout has actually begun.

An example of programming without autoregulation in place would be percentage based programming. All decisions about the workout would be made beforehand, and the athlete knows exactly how much weight is being used before they even begin the workout. If the program says they are doing 5 sets of 5 reps at 75% of their 1RM (1 Rep Max), they know they will be lifting 75% of their one rep max. In this case, “how the athlete is feeling” is not considered. They are tasked with completing 75% of their 1RM whether they got 3 hours of sleep or 8 hours of sleep, and they are tasked with hitting 75% of their 1RM whether they had the most stressful day at work ever, or they had the best day of their life.

An example of autoregulated training on the other hand would not give the athlete a predetermined load, but instead an “exertion level” to reach for the day. Autoregulation does not mean that you just “wing it”, there is still structure in place for the workout. Whereas a percentage program would be 5 sets of 5 reps at 75% 1RM, an autoregulated program could be 5 sets of 5 reps at RPE (rating of perceived exertion) 8. RPE being subjective, the lifter won’t know the load on the bar until they are well into their workout. This allows load on the bar to be adjusted for how the athlete is feeling on any given day. If it’s a “good day” performance is likely to be better and load could be higher, if it’s a “bad day” performance may be negatively impacted and load could be reduced, however, the required “exertion level” for the day remains constant.

Autoregulation gives some flexibility to training programs and helps account for the fact that an athlete isn’t guaranteed to be feeling their best at every single training session. Stressors outside of the gym like sleep, work stress, fatigue, and sickness, can always get in the way of performance and autoregulation is an attempt at countering that fact. That being said this is not to say percentage based programs are “wrong”, they are still widely used and at a highly competitive level as well.

Also keep in mind that while autoregulation and RPE are talked about hand in hand, autoregulation does not automatically imply RPE. RPE just happens to be the most popular form of autoregulating a program, but it’s not the only choice when it comes to autoregulation.

2. RPE Explained

RPE or “rating of perceived exertion” is a rating system to rank…you guessed it…perceived exertion…

RPE is most commonly associated with lifting nowadays thanks to social media, but can be used to judge exertion level of any given physical activity, running, biking, swimming, you name it. If it’s physical activity, it can be given an RPE rating.

The RPE scale originally started off as a rating system from 6-20 (initially meant to roughly line up with a resting heart rate of 60BPM and Max of 200BPM), but it’s much more common to see a 1-10 scaled being used (1-10 being a more intuitive scale for individuals to accurately rank their exertion level with). A 1 on the RPE scale would represent very light activity, something above sleeping, but barely more than that. Think a slow walk. Effort level then gradually creeps up with the scale leading up to an RPE 10 which should represent maximal exertion level. Think the hardest physical activity you’ve ever done.

RPE is used in research all the time to subjectively measure individuals perceived exertion alongside objective measure such as heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate, etc. Likewise it is commonly employed in training programs as a form of autoregulation.

Important to note incase you missed it, RPE is SUBJECTIVE. RPE can only be assessed by the individual doing the physical activity themselves, and as such it’s important that the RPE scale is properly explained to that person before asking for their rating. I as a coach cannot truly sit their and tell you that your set of squats was an RPE 8 just by watching it. I can guess sure. But only the individual in question can determine the “true” rating for their given physical activity.

3. How to Gauge RPE

Gauging RPE for resistance training is a lot easier than most people make it out to be.

For starter’s forget about RPE 1-5. We don’t need them. Anything below an RPE 6 is universally accepted as a warm-up set in the strength training world, and as such, doesn’t actually get recorded as being part of your workout. Sets at an RPE 6 or above, however, are usually when sets start getting recorded in a journal.

From their you want to understand what an RPE 10 is and work your way backwards. RPE 10 in resistance training means you could not have done another rep for a give set. That means if you hit a set of 10 reps at 225lbs on Squats and you know you would fail the 11th rep if you tried, that set was an RPE 10 set. Likewise, if you hit a 1RM attempt at 500lbs on the squat, completed it, and knew a second rep wasn’t happening, that set was also an RPE 10. What’s important to note is RPE 10 does not automatically imply that it was a “max effort” set, only that you couldn’t have done another rep. For example, someone with a 500lb squat max could hit a single at 485lb, and a single at 495lb, leading up to 500lb. If they could not complete another rep of 485lb, and 495lb, then all 3 sets 485lb, 495lb, and 500lb would be RPE 10 sets.

Below an RPE 10 set you have RPE 9 and this implies that you could have completed one more rep for your set. So for example, you complete a set of 9 push-ups but you know you can do 10 push-ups. Your set of 9 push-ups would be an RPE 9. From their you work your way down, RPE 8 means you could have completed 2 more reps for the set, RPE 7 means you could have completed 3 more reps for the set, and RPE 6 means you could have completed 4 more reps for the set.

You can give RPE ratings a .5 modifier if you aren’t quite sure. Say you hit a set of 10 reps of squats at 225lbs and you know you definitively could have hit 2 more reps, and maybe even hit a 3rd rep, you can rate it at RPE 7.5.

Try not to get stressed out about rating your lifts with RPE. It’s not a perfect science. You get better at gauging your lifts the more you do it, but even at an advanced level it’s never going to be perfect. Avoid the paralysis by analysis, rate your lift as accurately as you can, then move on and forget about it. Don’t lose sleep over if your set of 8 was actually an RPE 9 when you rated it an RPE 8. It’s not that deep.

4. If this is all Subjective Won’t That Lead to Sandbagging? 

Possibly…

People are hard to trust autoregulation due to the subjectivity of most autoregulation systems. They believe this will just lead to people being lazy with their training.

My first response to this would be concern that the person saying this is projecting insecurity about their own work ethic and how they might use an autoregulated system onto others. But my second response would be if you are concerned about your performance on an autoregulated system, just stick to something like a percentage based system, as I said both are viable! (Some people just like knowing the exact load they will be using for the day and that’s fine!)

To genuinely address the topic of sandbagging with an autoregulated system. It generally shouldn’t be an issue. Most people incorrectly associate autoregulation as “winging it” or “just training by feel” and under a properly autoregulated system that shouldn’t be the case. Is this stuff subjective? Yes. Can there be human error? Yes. But this isn’t just complete anarchy for your training.  A well autoregulated program should have strict enough guidelines to it that, so long as you are indeed following the “rules” so to speak, human error will be kept to a bare minimum. So long as you are putting effort fourth and trying to rate your physical activity as accurately as is reasonably possible, then you’ll be fine.

If however, you consistently rank RPE 6 effort lifts as RPE 9, then yeah you’ll be sandbagging. But I also think deep down you’ll already know you’re doing that…won’t need me to tell you 😉

Matt Molloy

Matt Molloy

I'm a graduate the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Exercise Science. I’m a local guy (North Penn) and athletics has dominated my life. I've led teams in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf and my passion, long distance running. I've been strength training for 6 years with a focus in power-lifting but have recently stretched to strongman since joining the pride here at the Den. When I’m not in the gym I enjoy, spending time with my friends, music, and relaxing and playing some video games.