How The Rate Of Perceived Exertion Scale Can Boost Your Fitness Game

Consider it a personalized workout tool.

What is the rate of perceived exertion scale? Here's what to know about the workout tool.
Nitat Termmee/Moment/Getty Images

Since there is no one-size-fits-all approach to exercise, it helps to have a personalized rating system that allows you to keep track of your own workout. After all, a casual jog for one person might be a tough run for someone else. That’s the idea behind the rate of perceived exertion scale or RPE: It allows you to decide how hard you’re working.

The RPE scale is a way to subjectively rate the difficulty of your workout or the activity you’re doing, says Megan McLain, PT, DPT, a physical therapist and personal trainer. “Typically this is rated based on the amount of muscle burn, amount of sweat being produced, how quickly you feel like your heart is beating, and overall how much effort you feel you’re giving,” she says.

Your rate of perceived exertion is measured on a scale that goes from zero to 10 with zero representing no effort at all — think sitting on the couch — and 10 representing the maximum effort possible, McLain says. While a five on the scale might mean you’re out of breath and feel a burn in your muscles, a nine indicates that your heart is pounding, you’re drenched in sweat, and you’re too out of breath to carry on a conversation.

While it’s up to you to decide how hard you want to push, it’s generally recommended to stay somewhere between a three, which is a more moderate effort, or a four, which starts to get into heavy territory. The type of movement that gets you to a three or a four will be unique to you, but that’s part of what makes the RPE so helpful. Keep reading for more info on the rate of perceived exertion scale and how it can benefit your workout routine.

The Benefits Of Using RPE

Luis Alvarez/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Like your step counter or target heart rate, the RPE is another tool you can use to measure your workout, McLain says. Think of it as a general guide so you know how hard you’re pushing yourself. It’ll allow you to reach and stay in a certain zone without overdoing it. It’s also handy to use during HIIT workouts, as you can keep tabs on your all-out efforts and recovery intervals. If you ever feel like you’re at a 10, that’s a sign to slow down.

To use the RPE scale during a workout, aim for a two on your scale during the warm-up portion, McLain says. For a longer workout, like a lengthy jog, you’d then want to maintain somewhere around three or four, depending on your fitness level. If you’re opting for a short workout, like a HIIT routine or strength training, that’s when you can spike it up to a seven or eight.

Another perk? Your RPE can change day to day based on how well you slept, your nutrition, or whether or not you remembered to drink enough water — all factors that can affect how you feel during a workout, McLain says. It can also inform how hard you want to push yourself. If you’d normally rate your boxing class a five out of 10 but one day it feels like an 11, you can take it as a sign from your body that it needs something, like water or a rest day.

The Downsides Of RPE

Because RPE is subjective — meaning you aren’t looking at hard data, like the kind you’d see on a smartwatch — it is possible to under-train or misjudge your estimate, McLain says. For RPE to be beneficial you have to be honest with yourself: Are you really at a seven, or is it more of a three? You’ll be able to better gauge your range the more you use it.

“On the flip side, if someone is feeling overly exuberant, they can tell themselves that they are working less than they perceive that they are and this could lead to form compensations or injury,” she adds. “For these reasons, it is helpful to use both RPE and another objective measure, like heart rate, when training.”

Still, using the RPE scale can be very beneficial — think of it as a tool that helps you track how you feel in any given workout, all by listening to your body.

Studies referenced:

Arney, BE. Comparison of RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion) Scales for Session RPE. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. doi: 10.1123/ijspp.2018-0637.

Scherr, J. Associations between Borg's rating of perceived exertion and physiological measures of exercise intensity. Eur J Appl Physiol. doi: 10.1007/s00421-012-2421-x.