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Training with intensity: how hard should you really be pushing in the gym

Whether your goal is to lose fat or build muscle, it’s important to apply progressive overload to your training, as we need to give our muscles sufficient stimulus to actually grow. This doesn’t mean we need to be taking every set to failure, or crawling out of the gym after our sessions, but it does mean we need to be strategic with our weight selection and view our sessions as more than just sets and reps. 

That’s why I use the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) method to gauge my effort in my sessions, and track whether or not I am improving. So what is RPE, and how and when should you be applying it to your training? 

RPE is scale of measurement that allows you to ensure you are working hard enough to stimulate muscle growth in your sessions. It is a scale of 1-10, 1 being you could have pumped out another 10 or so reps and 10 meaning you are completely exhausted, and would fail your next rep. For example, if you are performing 4 sets of 10 reps on a barbell back squat, you might set yourself a goal of reaching a RPE of 8 on each set, meaning you could do two more reps before exhaustion. 

For most of our working sets, we want to reach an 8 on the RPE scale, as this is usually the sweet spot where we have exhausted our muscles without compromising form. For compound lifts such as a deadlift or barbell back squat, we shouldn’t push past this point unless we are attempting a one rep max or have someone to spot us. RPE is also something we can progressively overload, meaning the first few weeks we have a lower RPE which gradually builds week on week as we adapt to the exercises in our program. 

However for some exercises it is completely safe to train to failure, and we should be pushing for a 10 on the RPE scale. Machine exercises such as cable variations, leg press or leg curls are safe to train to failure, as well as high rep dumbbell exercises such as lateral raises or bicep curls. A lot of people underestimate what they can do in the gym. That’s why it’s a good idea to actually take some sets to failure so you can use the scale accurately and see what you’re capable of. 

So what does all of this mean for you and your training? Here are my top tips for ways you can use the RPE scale in your training, and how you can maximise your training sessions to yield better results. 

  • Track your sessions: Start tracking your lifts and the weights you use, and try to add weight or reps when you can. 
  • Rate your effort using the RPE scale every time you train: The more you use the RPE scale, the more accurate your estimates will be. Be sure to use it consistently until you can accurately predict how many reps you are from failure. 
  • Choose your weights wisely: If you are prescribed 4 sets of 10 reps, choose a weight that you could do 12 reps with. This will ensure you are hitting an 8 on the RPE scale. 
  • Don’t be scared to train to failure: If you are performing an exercise you feel comfortable with and there is no risk of injury, try to push some of your sets to a 10 RPE. This will also help you rate your other sets as you become more familiar with the feeling of being close to your max. 
  • Be honest with yourself: Only you know how hard you are pushing. Those last few reps are the ones that really count towards muscle building, so make sure you are pushing hard in every set. 

Soph xx