USING THE RPE SCALE
Our latest health and fitness blog looks at the RPE Scale – what it is and how to use it
WHAT IS RPE?
RPE stands for the Rate of Perceived Exertion and fitness professionals such as personal trainers can use the RPE Scale as a useful tool to assess how hard their clients feel they are working.
(Original scale and Modified scale)
The RPE Scale was devised by Gunner Borg in 1982 and originally began as a scale of 6-20. It is accompanied by clear wording to help an individual understand what each number on the scale correlates to in terms of how hard they are working.
According to an article by James S Skinner, R Hutsler, V Bergsteinova and ER Buskirk in the journal of Medicine and Science in Sports (Vol 5, no 2, 1973), entitled: “The validity and reliability of a rating scale of perceived exertion”, the RPE scale has a high coefficient of reliability. This reliability can be measured by comparing an individual’s response to the 6-20 scale with their working heart rate and what their working VO2 max is.
Simple, yet effective and backed by scientific principles, the RPE Scale allows a fitness instructor to quickly assess how hard a client is working – whether in a gym or outdoor environment – without the need for expensive measuring equipment. All the fitness professional needs to do is ask the client where they feel they are working on a scale of 6-20.
However, after the RPE Scale was introduced in 1982, some people felt that using a 6-20 scale was not intuitive. As a result, the Modified Borg Scale was developed, using a 0-10 scale.
The results of a study entitled “Comparison of the original and revised Borg Scale for perceived exercise” were published in the journal of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. This states that both the original scale and the modified scale show similar relations to heart rate and VO2 but that, when asked, clients generally preferred the 6-20 scale. As this is generally a matter of preference, it is a good idea for a personal trainer to ask a client which scale they find it best to work with.
One important element of using the RPE Scale is for the fitness professional to ask their client an open question, such as: “How hard do you feel you are working?” while at the same time showing them the scale written down. If the client isn’t able to see the numbers of the scale and the associated comments that describe what each number correlates to, the personal trainer will receive less consistent responses.
It’s also important to avoid leading the client towards a particular response, for example, “Are you working at level eight?” as again you may not get as accurate a response as if you allow the client to choose the level themselves from the list.
One benefit of the scale is that it’s subjective to the individual’s feelings rather than being monitored by heart rates, breathing or other measurements. So if the person has not slept well or has sore muscles and is struggling with the exercise, their choice of level on the Borg Scale will indicate this to the personal trainer, whereas a heart rate monitor might find them working at their usual level.
HOW HARD SHOULD A CLIENT BE WORKING?
It’s usually expected that a client will work to a minimum rate of 3-4 on the 0-10 scale or a rate of 10-11 on the 6-20 scale. Anything below these levels and they will not be working hard enough to achieve any fitness gains.
Working at anything between 3-4 and 6-7 on the 0-10 scale and 10-11 and 15-16 on the 6-20 scale will count as aerobic exercise.
Anything above 6-7 on the 0-10 scale and above 15-16 on the 6-20 scale will be anaerobic, at which point the client will be approaching OBLA training (see our blog on OBLA training).
In short, the Borg Scale is a simple but useful tool that can be printed out and laminated on a card for the client and personal trainer’s use or added to the back of programme cards. It can, of course, be used alongside other training aids, such as heart rate monitors or general questioning of the client.