Should Police and Firefighters Workout Using the RPE Scale

Keep in mind, this article is referring to training with the barbell or compound based exercises that require a percentage of intensity.

As first responders, you respond to calls in a sudden moments notice. You stop what you are doing, gather information, then react accordingly. In the perfect world, physical fitness would be at the top of your to-do list. Sometimes, physical fitness training has to be performed at night after a long day of calls. You have your fitness program and it says to complete 5 sets of 5 reps of the squat at 75%. Now, how in the world are you suppose to hit all of your target %’s during your workout if you spent the majority of your energy at calls? Does that 70-90% even look appealing to you after pulling a 12 or 24 hr shift? Aside from the mental aspect, do you think your body is firing at full capacity after your shift? Or even mid-shift at the fire station? Honestly, probably not. Sometimes straying away from percentages could help aid continued fitness training without increasing your chances of injury. Keep in mind, if you have to continue to decrease the weight/load week after week for an extended period of time, you are simply regressing, not recovering.

What is RPE?

RPE stands for “Rate of Perceived Exertion.” This means the training load or intensity is determined based on the difficulty of the weight in the moment. The person performing the exercise makes a decision on how difficult the lift is on a numeric scale. Most individuals utilize a 1-10 scale, with 1 referring to literally lying down and 10 being,.. well, near death strain/intensity. This allows for modifications of training load based on a variety of factors. These factors may include amount of sleep, physical exertion at calls prior to training session, fatigue due to overtime workload,or mental readiness.

Prior to beginning a fitness program, as a first responder you need to ask yourself these questions when utilizing the RPE Scale:

  • Can I commit to a fitness program?
  • Will I take my job demands into consideration?
  • Can I set emotion and motivation aside, utilize discipline, and base my RPE on actual perceived effort/intensity?

The reason you need to commit toward using the RPE Scale efficiently for it to work, is that each individual has their own perception of pain and intensity. Anyone can lift something light but say it is a 9 on the 1-10 scale. Meaning, they said the load was almost unbearable. At the same time, you could have someone else who is very determined to progress and raise their numbers. This person might say everything is a 3/10, meaning that the load is way too light. I have seen people barely complete a lift, say the intensity is a 3, increase the weight, and get injured.

Understanding the importance of the RPE scale, how to use it, understanding how you perceive pain and intensity, and understanding the importance of steady progression are vital factors in performance training.

When programming, the concepts of reps and sets will look the same. For instance you could still perform the 5 by 5 method (5 sets of 5 reps). Instead of 75-80%, one could indicate it as a 7-8 on the RPE scale and increase the weight as long as the intensity does not begin to hit the 9-10 RPE zone. The issue we find with this, is that most individuals aren’t experienced enough to coordinate this method, or stay disciplined to it.

At the end of the day, the method of programming you use is based on your experience, preference, and communication with your instructor or staff. Utilize the most efficient method you know how to use.

Written By Hussien Jabai | NSCA CSCS

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