Why First Responders need to know and implement RPE into their Training

Nov 07, 2020

Some days, it takes so much more motivation to make it into the gym in the first place, let alone give it your all.

The coach has programmed the workout to be heavier than the week before, or faster, or just all around more soul crushing than a similar workout last week.

So you dive into your warm up. Nothing seems exceptionally different. You work on your warm up, your mobility, movement patterning and sequencing and then start loading up the bar for back squats that are on tap for that day.

The workout, or this portion anyway, has been a gradual build over the past several weeks and today calls for 5 sets of 5 reps at 85%. 

You load the bar with some weight for the warm up sets. 50% feels heavier than it should.

You load up 60% for a few, and it is feeling heavy.

70% feels like you should be there already.

You load up 80% and need a spot for the 5th rep. 

Good God you nearly shit your pants.

How the F*%$ am I supposed to hit 85% today?

As humans, we tend to look at things for face value, rather than dive into the question: 


For most of the population, life is life. It is a series of steps with minimal variability throughout the day.

Wake Up. Go to Work. Have Lunch. Stop at the gym on the way home. Get home, see family. Go to Bed. Repeat.

Within this, there are various stressors that affect our CNS (or Central Nervous System). 

Chemically, your body does not differentiate one type of stress from another.

Your body recognizes stress and subsequently kicks in your sympathetic nervous system - fight or flight.

Back in the cavemen days, this was beneficial. It was move or get eaten. 

Today, there is less drastic situations for most of us.

There are stressors of finances, relationships, demands from your boss, etc. And these all have an impact on your sympathetic nervous system and CNS. 

Chemically, it is similar to being chased by a f*&$ing bear.

BUT…. As a First Responder, the job typically demands a little higher adaptation to stressful situations. This results in many consequences such as PTSD and frying your adrenal glands which negatively effects hormones, metabolism and more which ALSO effects your bodies ability to lose weight or improve body composition, that for the purpose of this article I won’t dive into.

So take regular stress of day to day life, and then throw in things like shift work, poor sleep patterns, emotionally heavy calls, high stress life or death situations, and more…

So what’s the answer to the question, “How the F*%$ am I supposed to hit 85% today?

Short answer…

You’re not.

You see, what many people do not realize is that ALL 23 hours outside of the gym have an effect on the results that happen inside the gym.

It is true that in order to see results from the gym, there needs to be a certain level of stress involved (partnered with recovery) to see improvements in performance and let’s be honest, we all are vein in trying to improve our body composition. 

So it’s important to realize that if you have been battling various types of stress throughout the day, this WILL impact your bodies CNS and subsequently, your ability to perform in the gym.

So how to get around this?

Enter RPE.

What is RPE?

RPE stands for Rate of Perceived Exertion. Basically, this is a scale of effort output based on how it FEELS.

Many coaches shy away from this simply because it CAN provide their client/athlete with an excuse to push the limits in a training session, which consequently impacts the results from the program.

Personally, I am a big fan of RPE, especially considering that the majority of my clients are First Responders. 

So considering you deal with copious amounts of stress, it is important to factor these things in when training.

And since it is IMPOSSIBLE for me to factor in every known stressor from your life (you may not even know what is causing your stress…) then I would rather educate my clients and athletes about RPE.

As I mentioned before, typically RPE is broken down into a scale of how something FEELS. Generally it is a number out of 10 (though sometimes it can be out of 20, but for the purposes of this article and how I coach, let’s use the scale out of 10.)

It can be broken down as follows:

Typically, in order to see improvements in the gym, you need to be working at an RPE of 7 or higher (in most cases). Notice how this says nothing about percentages or anything. 

This means it needs to FEEL difficult.

The problem for clients and athletes is that there needs to be a level of honesty with themselves about how something truly feels.

Does it feel like a 5 but you are negotiating with yourself to convince yourself it feels like a 8?

I often argue that FEW people can really give a 10/10 effort, because few know what that actually feels like. And truthfully, as a coach, I only want to see a 10/10 effort once in a while.

But being honest with yourself, regardless of what your program says, you want you training to live in the 7-9 range most of the time. 

Rules of thumb for RPE and First Responders

Now as a First Responder, it is important to ensure you are ready on shift.

Therefore, I wanted to outline a few rules of thumb for First Responders and RPE with their training.

Rule # 1: BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF (AND YOUR COACH) with where you are at that day. If you can’t hit the weights prescribed, that’s ok. Just ensure that it truly feels like a 7-9/10

Rule # 2: WHEN TRAINING BETWEEN SHIFTS, KEEP IT A 5-8/10. You need to be ready for anything on shift, and so torching yourself in the gym that day may not be the best way to approach that days training.

Rule # 3: SHOW UP, EVERY F*&%ING DAY. My experience is that too many First Responders neglect training entirely. And so building consistency in training is important. It should be a routine part of your day, and yes, every day. Again, this is not to say you should torch yourself every single day. Instead, in a 7 day week, there should be 1-2 days of going nuclear, 2-3 days of medium to intense effort, 1-3 days of light to medium effort. Effectively, you have 3-5 days per week where you are training relatively hard, and 2-4 days where you are focusing on mobility, recovery and staying healthy. This will not only lead to progress, but when dosed appropriately, can ensure you are ready to perform on the job when needed.

Rule # 4: FOCUS ON RECOVERY, AND IN MOST CASES, SLEEP. This is a difficult one for most First Responders. But there is a difference between focusing and prioritizing sleep and simply winging it. Often, you cannot control when your shifts are. But you can control the attention and effort you put in. This means potentially sacrificing time with friends, family and having a social life because you need to focus on your own health and recovery. One strategy may be to get a colleague or someone who can be your gym partner. This can ensure you get a social life WHILE training for your job and life, and doesn’t take away from your need for sleep and recovery.

Now, sometimes this can be a tricky, nuanced thing. 

So if you are looking for guidance, help, or more info, feel free to check out either our training programs or coaching services at www.heroicathletics.com.

And remember, the best path to getting insane results is to focus on CLARITY, CONSISTENCY and COMMUNICATION. With these 3 C’s you will 100% get the results you are looking for.

And next time you step under the bar, or show up to the workout, don’t beat yourself if you can’t hit the “prescribed” weights or time or whatever. As long as you are giving your honest effort for that day, showing up and being consistent, you’ll make progress.


Coach Brandon Robb
[email protected]

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