How You Can Gauge Your Effort to Make Your Workouts Better

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This is Your Quick Training Tip, a chance to learn how to work smarter in just a few moments so you can get right to your workout.

MAXIMIZING YOUR GAINS is all about balance. No matter what your focus for training is (strength, speed, power, endurance, or some combination thereof), your long-term goal in the gym is simple. You want to consistently hit the sweet spot between exercising hard enough to maximize your physical adaptations (those aforementioned gains) and exercising so hard that you jeopardize your progress through overtraining and injury. In short, you want to live in the Goldilocks zone—that ideal place where training frequency and intensity are always “just right.”

Tracking your heart rate while exercising is an efficient way to accomplish that on a workout-to-workout basis. But if you don’t have a heart rate monitor—or if you just want to take a more organic, intuitive approach to monitoring your effort level—one of the best alternatives is using an RPE scale.

What Is an RPE Scale?

RPE stands for rate of perceived exertion, and it’s a measure of how hard you feel you’re exercising. Yes, it’s subjective—but that’s part of why the practice of using a scale like this is so effective. Your ranking is based on you and you alone, and it can vary from one workout to the next. In fact, it should fluctuate in that way, because that’s what allows you to tailor each sweat session to what your body is able to deliver each and every day you train.

The most popular and widely used RPE scale was developed by a Swedish researcher named Gunnar Borg in the 1960s, and it remains the gold standard for estimating effort level and intensity to this day. Known formally as the Borg Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Scale, it rates effort from 6 to 20, epitomizing and formalizing the idea of “listening to your body” while working out.

Why 6 to 20? Borg designed it to correspond roughly to the heart rate of a fit person at various intensity levels divided by 10.

At rest, such a person’s heart rate is about 60 beats per minute (BPM), hence why the scale starts at 6. At maximal exertion, that person’s heart rate might climb to 200 BPM, which is why the scale tops out at 20. But don’t get too caught up in its origins or foundation; even though Borg’s RPE scale was designed with a fit person in mind, it can be used by anyone regardless of fitness level—and no matter what type of workout you’re doing.

Some trainers adjust this scale to a 1 to 10 range, since that might be more accessible to the general exercising public. In practice, though, using RPE remains the same.

How to Use the RPE Scale in Your Workouts

In case it isn’t obvious already, RPE is a powerful tool for “autoregulation,” allowing you to adjust your effort level based on how you’re feeling each day.

Why is that important? Because every workout can’t be your best one ever—or the hardest workout ever. Let that sink in for a moment.

Ideally, the trend is always upward—and for many people, that mostly winds up being the case (if they're diligent and consistent in their training, of course). Some days will always be better than others. During one workout, you’ll feel unstoppable. During the next one, less so. And that’s okay.

This is the same for everybody, including elite athletes. But the key is to give your all every single time—and that’s where listening to your body (e.g., by gauging your RPE) can be a game changer. Depending on your goals, you should assess how you feel during the workouts, and aim to stay in the middle-to-top end of the scale. There should be days when you edge toward the higher limits—but they should be less common to keep yourself healthy.

Indeed, this practice can be the secret weapon to consistently working out at the exact right intensity to stay on the fast track to your goals without overdoing it—whether you’re a runner, lifter, cyclist, rower, climber, surfer, or even pickleballer.

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