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Workout Intensity: Picking the Right Weight


Knowing how to choose the appropriate workout intensity can be tricky master. Picture this: you are starting a new workout plan and can’t wait to get started. You head to the gym with your sparkling new exercise program loaded on your phone. After a quick warmup, it’s time to start the show.

First up, kettlebell squats at 4 sets of 10. In your rage of excitement, you think, “LET’S DO THIS! Let’s just grab a kettlebell and get to it… Wait a minute… What weight?!?” If you go too heavy and the intensity is too high, that could compromise your whole workout. If you go too light, are you even doing anything? Fear not reader, I am here to save the day. Let’s figure out a simple way to pick the right weight for you to make sure your intensity stays up, you don’t put yourself at risk, and you stay on track to reach your goals.

Introducing the RPE Scale

The last thing you want to do is go to the gym and barely break a sweat because your workout intensity was too low. On the flip side, pushing too hard too fast can be equally as bad. Therefore, we need to find a middle ground. So how do we know what weight is right for what exercise? It’s simple– we use the RPE scale! The Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale is a super effective tool for gauging our intensity. This way we can be absolutely certain we have picked the right weight for each exercise, day in and day out. Remember, every day is different, so your weights may change from workout to workout based on how you feel. The RPE scale is modifiable and can help you stay consistent throughout every workout.

How to use the RPE scale

Let’s break down the acronym RPE to get some clues on how to use it. Deciphering “perceived exertion,” this is going to be how hard an exercise feels to you personally, and putting a number value to that between 1-10 allows you to “rate” it.

There are two different ways I want you to look at the RPE scale: assigning the right number and reps in the tank. Mastering these approaches will help you choose the right weight and, in turn, the right workout intensity. It will be a trial and error system at first, but as you practice it more and get better at it, you will be able dial in your weights.

Assigning the right number.

Start by picking a weight you think you can do for the prescribed number of reps. Do your first set and reflect on how much effort you put into it. Then, assign a number between 1-10 that matches how you felt at the end of the set.

  • 1-2= Very easy, am I even lifting anything?
  • 3-4= Not hard, I can do this all day
  • 5-6= I can definitely do a lot of reps, but this might get hard after a while
  • 7-8= Okay this is intense, but I can handle it with good form
  • 9= Really intense, but I can push it until I almost fail
  • 10= Max intensity, I will fail on my last rep

After analyzing your effort after the first set, you can use the RPE system to help guide you in the right direction for future sets. Depending on how many reps you are supposed to do, there is a corresponding intensity level that you should try to match to ensure consistent workout intensity. For heavier and more intense loads with lower reps, your RPE number will be higher. For lighter weight and higher reps, your RPE number will be lower.

Reps in the tank

The next way to look at the RPE scale is by how many “reps you have left in the tank.” For this, we will look at a rating of 6 or above on the scale, as this range is the most useful in resistance training.

  • 6-7: If your life depended on it, you could do 3-5 more reps with good form. Use this RPE for sets of 15+ reps.
  • 8: If your life depended on it, you could definitely do 2 more reps with good form, but that is it! Thinks sets of 6-10 and building strength and muscle.
  • 9: One more rep in the tank. One. Single. Rep. Think sets of 3-5 reps.
  • 10: That is all you could handle. There is zero chance you could do one more rep with good form, even if your life depended on it! This is for an all out effort, sets of 1-2 reps.
How do I use this is real life?

Great question, reader! Let’s use an example. We are going to take a look at three different exercises, with different workout intensities and rep ranges, and we will use the RPE scale to pick the right weights. Let’s start with bicep curls for 3 x 15. We want to pick a weight that challenges us at 15 reps. Look at our scales above, and pick a weight that is comfortable enough to get to 18 reps if absolutely needed but challenges us in that 15th rep. If the first weight picked is too light, then go up, and visa versa until the workout intensity is even across all sets.

RPE scale for heavier weights

Going into the final two lifts, we are greeted with bench press for 6-8 reps. Looking at our scale above, we want an RPE of 8. We pick a weight we could just barely inch out 1-2 more reps once we reach 8. If we only make it to five reps on the first set, that means our training intensity was too high, and we need to go down. And finally, we have squats for 1-3 reps, which is our heaviest lift. Yes, this is going to be a tough one. Ultimately, we want to just barely get to that last rep. Max intensity! Be careful going heavier if you are not ready, though.

Why the RPE system is useful

Picking the right weight can be a challenge, and as a result the RPE scale can help get us where we need to be a lot faster. The biggest problem with picking the wrong weight is that it can result in a lot of wasted time and difficulty reaching our goals. If we aren’t challenging ourselves enough, we won’t spur growth. If we are going too heavy, our injury risk shoots through the roof. Try it out at your next training session and see how your intensity changes!

To find out more about what exercises YOU should be doing for YOUR body, let us take you through our thorough assessment. Connect with one of us and make sure your program suits your body. RPE is a great tool if we first have all the other prerequisites needed for resistance training.