There are a variety of quantifying methods used by coaches, athletic trainers, and strength and conditioning specialists to measure the physical training loads undertaken by athletes (44,62). However, in combat sports, a few valid and reliable methods are available to evaluate combat and internal training loads. To date, the most widely used methods for evaluating combat and internal training loads are heart rate (HR) and blood lactate concentration [La] as a surrogate measure of exercise intensity (17,62,66). Thus, the application of HR as a measure of exercise intensity in combat sports has several limitations. For example, physiological measurement during competition in combat sports is difficult because HR monitoring devices often incur technical failure, and manual pulse palpitation requires interruption in competition. Furthermore, the HR response can be a poor method for evaluating intensity during high-intensity exercise, such as interval and plyometric (31), which are regularly implemented in combat sports programs. Consequently, other methods may be more appropriate.
Rating of perceived exertion (RPE) is a valid and reliable method for monitoring internal training load in athletes (32). This approach has received increased attention in recent years in combat sports (48,66). For that reason, to establish the construct validity of the RPE methods (RPE or session-RPE) in combat sports, previous studies have investigated its relationship with 22 physiological measures of exercise intensity ([La] and HR) during different exercise protocols (29), training sessions (17,36), and simulated and official competitions (38,66). Some studies have reported a significant correlation between RPE and [La] during official combat sports matches (59,66) and between session-RPE and [La] during combat sports training (48,53). Other studies also reported a significant correlation between RPE and HR during competition (10) and training (48) and between session-RPE and HR during combat sport training (38,52,53) and competition (66). By contrast, other studies reported no significant correlations between physiological variables (i.e., [La], HR) and RPE during simulated and official combat competitions (20,68). Consequently, the controversy data need further clarification regarding the validity of RPE methods to monitor combat and training loads in combat sport athletes.
Previous studies have used RPE as a method to measure the level of effort that is felt during training session (25,30,36) and internal intensity during combat sports (66). The RPE can be defined as the ability to detect and interpret organic sensations while performing exercises (51). In fact, the traditional method of measuring RPE is commonly used immediately after the execution of each exercise, reflecting various measurement points according to the amount of exercise performed (1). To facilitate the measurement and quantification of exercise intensity and combat load, Foster et al. (31) developed the method of subjective perception of exertion during a training session (session-RPE). This was subsequently used to monitor various exercise types and to quantify combat load. This method is based on a simple question that the subject responds to a 30-minute postsession or immediately after competition: “What level of exertion did you feel in your body during the training session or competition?” This reflects the feeling of global exertion experienced during the entire session or competition.
For instance, a synthesis of the RPE literature and its correlation with physiological variables (i.e., [La], HR) during combat sport competition and training may be useful and of great applicable relevance toward understanding the level of effort and the underlying physiological demands of training and competition. Moreover, this review will show the validity and reliability of the use of RPE method to monitor combat and training loads. This approach can also help trainers plan training sessions close to official competition and adopt the best strategy to control the stress-recovery balance. However, a literature review covering this topic has not been published. Therefore, the aim of the current short review was to discuss the validity of RPE and session-RPE during combat sports competition and training in relation to combat rounds and matches, contest type (i.e., official vs. simulation competition vs. training), combat sport practiced, age of participants, competitive season stage, and training modalities. We hypothesized that the RPE would differ according to the combat sport practiced, the contest type, and the competitive season stage. We also hypothesized that the variety of correlation between RPE and [La] and between session-RPE and HR-based methods would vary according to combat sport practiced, contest type, age and competitive level of participants, the intensity of session (i.e., high vs. low), training modality and volume (i.e., short vs. long).
Experimental Approach to the Problem
A brief review was conducted to verify the validity of RPE and session-RPE for the quantification of combat and training loads during combat sports-specific activities. Relevant studies were combined and analyzed to provide an overview of the available research on this topic. Conclusions were based on the included studies with suggestions for practical applications for strength and conditioning professionals as well as future investigations.
The total number of participants included in this review was 502 (364 males and 55 females, whereas the sex of 83 participants was not possible to identify). Sample size ranged between 4 and 42. The subject's age within the selected studies ranged from 12 to 41 years. In addition, the training status of participants is depicted in Tables 1 and 2.
A computerized search was performed using PubMed, Google Scholar, Web of Science, and Scopus databases (from January 1, 1990 to January 15, 2017) for English-language, peer-reviewed investigations using the terms “RPE” or “rating of perceived exertion” alone and together with “combat sport,” “competition,” “training,” and “physiological responses.” Manual searches were also made using reference lists from the recovered articles.
According to previous reviews (62,63), studies were included in the review if they met all of the following criteria:
- (1) Population: studies recruiting male and female combat sport athletes at any age category and competitive level as participants;
- (2) Intervention or exposure:
- (a) Original investigations assessing RPE and-or session-RPE during combat sport competition or training;
- (b) Studies that examined the correlation between RPE or session-RPE and physiological measures (i.e., [La], HR) in simulated or in official combat sport matches or training;
- (3) Outcome(s): RPE or session-RPE after combat sports competitions or training and its correlation with physiological measures (i.e., HR and [La]);
- (4) Design: original investigations published in peer-reviewed journals;
- (5) Time filter: from January 1, 1990 to January 15, 2017;
- (6) Language filter: articles written exclusively in English language.
Studies not meeting the above-mentioned PICO criteria were excluded, namely
- (1) Reviews, commentaries, interviews or expert opinions, letters to editor and editorials, posters, book chapters, books, theses and dissertations, and conference proceedings. In general, non–peer-reviewed or gray literature was discarded, to keep only high-quality studies;
- (2) Studies assessing RPE after supplementation, recovery methods, or during Ramadan;
- (3) Studies not written in English.
Quantification of Combat and Training Loads
Three methods of combat and training loads quantification were used (i.e., 1 subjective and 2 objective methods). Rating of perceived exertion or session-RPE were the subjective methods. Rating of perceived exertion characterized by scores and verbal links (i.e., from “rest” to “maximal”), referring to the athlete's perception of efforts into a numerical score between 0 (i.e., rest) and 10 (i.e., maximal) or between 6 (i.e., rest) and 20 (i.e., maximal). More specifically, concerning the RPE Borg's category scale (6–20), the exertion was classified as “very light” (9 on the Borg Scale), “somewhat hard” (12–14 on the Borg Scale), and “extremely hard” (19 on the Borg Scale) (14). Session-RPE was determined by multiplying accurate total combat or training session duration (minute) by the RPE score. Furthermore, among the objective methods, Banister training impulse (TRIMP) (8) and Edwards' training load (TL) (28) are the most useful to determine the validity of session-RPE method. Particularly, the Edwards' TL determines the internal load by measuring a product of the accumulated training duration (minute) of 5 HR zones by a coefficient related to each zone (50 to <60% of HRmax × 1, 60 to <70% of HRmax × 2, 70 to <80% of HRmax × 3, 80 to <90% of HRmax × 4, and 90–100% of HRmax × 5). Banister TRIMP is calculated using an exponential factor:where e = 2.712, x = (HRex − HRrest)/(HRmax − HRrest). In this equation, HRrest = average HR during rest, HRex = average HR during exercise, and HRmax = maximal HR.
The search strategies yielded a preliminary pool of 1,714 possible articles. The full text of 42 articles was retrieved and assessed for eligibility against the inclusion criteria. After a careful review of their full texts, 5 articles were excluded and the remaining 37 articles were eligible for inclusion in the review (Figure 1). Particularly, 30 articles examined RPE methods during combat sports training and competition across rounds, successive matches, training intensities and modalities, and muscle groups. Fifteen articles focused on the correlation between RPE and blood lactate concentration and HR.
Rating of perceived exertion can be used as an indirect marker to determine the level of effort/stress across bouts, successive matches, and combat sports training in athletes (Table 1). For instance during male simulated kickboxing competition, the value of RPE increased significantly after round 2 (R2) and R3 compared against R1 (p < 0.001) values (54–56); furthermore, post-R3 increased significantly compared with post-R2 (p < 0.001) (54,55). Previous studies have also reported that RPE values increase during boxing-specific exercises, sparring (45,60), and during official taekwondo competition (significant differences were reported between R1 and R3) (18). In addition, during the day of competition, combat sports athletes can engage in several matches with breaks of varying duration between ∼30 and 120 minutes. In this context, Tabben et al. (66) reported no significant differences for RPE and session-RPE across 3 successive official matches although there was only 33.6 ± 7.6 minutes of recovery between matches 1 and 2 and 14.5 ± 3.1 minutes between matches 2 and 3, during international competition. By contrast, another study reported that RPE increased over 4 consecutive simulated karate kumite matches (40). This contradiction is possibly due to the variation in contest type (official vs. simulated). A further study reported that RPE was not significantly different when taken 10 or 30 minutes after easy, moderate, and hard boxing training sessions (67). Singh et al. (61) recommended that after exercise, RPE should be collected as soon as 10 minutes after a training session with no loss of measurement quality, in contrast to recommendations of collection after 30 minutes of resistance exercises.
During simulated Brazilian jiu-jitsu matches, it has been reported that RPE increased progressively from resting to the fourth bout; however, there is no significant difference between the fourth and fifth bouts (68). Furthermore, some studies reported that RPE increased after match 1 2, and 3 when compared with prematch and increased postmatch 2 and 3 in comparison with postmatch 1, in simulated Brazilian jiu-jitsu matches (27) and wrestling competitions (23). Similar results were reported during 5 successive judo matches (58). By contrast, Andreato et al. (4) reported no significant differences between the RPE values after 4 successive simulated Brazilian jiu-jitsu matches; however, all matches were performed with the same opponent, which may have affected the intensity of effort.
In striking combat sports, the range of RPE was 11–16 in simulated kickboxing matches (55) and 13 ± 2 in official taekwondo competition (18). In grappling combat sports, the range of RPE was 13–15 (6), including official Brazilian jiu-jitsu matches 14–17 (5), and wrestling matches 13.8 (50). In mixed combat sport, Amtmann et al. (3) reported that the RPE in a match of mixed martial arts (MMAs) was in the range of 13–19. The current review highlights that RPE seems to be higher in MMA than in other combat sports. This difference may be related to the difference in match and/or bout duration (i.e., longer duration of bout during MMA), contest type (simulated vs. official matches), and the higher percentage contribution of aerobic metabolism in MMA than other combat sports (41). It has been reported that RPE values increase during simulated Brazilian jiu-jitsu and kickboxing rounds, during boxing-specific exercises and sparring bouts. However, there were no significant differences for RPE and session-RPE during 3 successive official karate and simulated Brazilian jiu-jitsu matches (performed with the same opponent).
Limited data are available detailing RPE and session-RPE according to the contest type and the competitive season stage. Joel et al. (43) reported that RPE during official Brazilian jiu-jitsu matches was similar to simulated ones. By contrast, Chaabène et al. (20) reported that RPE was higher during official compared with simulated karate combat. In addition, regarding the RPE during the competitive season stage, higher RPE values were reported for competitive period with respect to precompetitive period in taekwondo athletes (46). Therefore, future investigations studying RPE during combat sport competitions and training according to sex, age categories, competitive levels, and contest type are needed to quantify the level of effort according to these factors.
Psychophysiological assessments are increasingly reported in response to combat sports training and competition (Table 2), playing a key role in monitoring athletes stress per se and athletic performance recovery. Studies have reported a higher significant correlation between session-RPE and mean [La] during moderate intensity karate training sessions involving basic techniques (kihon) and sparring (r = 0.96) (48) as well as between RPE and [La] in official karate competition (r = 0.81) (66). Furthermore, low correlation between delta Borg category ratio (CR)-10 and delta blood lactate concentration (Δ[La]) was noted during judo randori (Fight 1 [F1]–F2: r = 0.71, p ≤ 0.05; F2–F3: r = 0.92, p < 0.01; F3–F4: r = 0.73, p ≤ 0.05, (17)). Furthermore, during 5 successive judo matches, correlation was reported between ΔRPE (using 6–20 Borg Scale) and [La] 1 minute before the next bout (r = 0.437, p = 0.018) (58). Serrano et al. (59) reported significant correlations between RPE and [La] (r = 0.63) and between RPE and the Δ[La] (r = 0.64) during official judo tournaments. Based on these studies, there seems to be higher correlation between RPE and [La] during official matches in striking combat sports compared with grappling sports. However, there was no significant relationship between RPE and [La] during simulated striking and grappling combat sports matches. Furthermore, the correlations between the session-RPE and [La] ranged from 0.62 to 0.96 during combat sports training tasks.
Previous studies have reported a strong correlation between RPE and HR (r = 0.88, p ≤ 0.05) in official judo competitions (10) and randori (17). Branco et al. (17) reported moderate correlations between CR-10 and HR, only in the second (r = 0.70, p ≤ 0.05) and third fights (r = 0.64, p ≤ 0.05) during judo randori. The disparities between correlations of HR and RPE found in official competition and randori, according to Bonitch et al. (10) are possibly explained by the physiological modifications induced by hormonal discharges in response to contextual stimuli (18). Tabben et al. (66) reported a significant correlation between RPE and mean HR (r = 0.64) and resting HR (r = 0.60) after matches at an international karate competition.
Considering the correlation between session-RPE and HR, Milanez et al. (48) reported a higher significant correlation between session-RPE and percentage of maximum HR (%HRmax) (r = 0.91) in moderate intensity karate training sessions involving basic techniques (kihon) and sparring. Furthermore, to establish the construct validity of the session-RPE method, a previous study has investigated its relationship with at least 2 HR-based methods (19). For instance, studies have reported moderate to strong correlations between session-RPE and HR-based methods (i.e., Banister's TRIMP, r = 0.81 (64), r = 0.84 (66), and r = 0.63 (52) in karate; r = 0.53–0.86 (36), r = 0.074 (38), and r = 0.52 (53) in taekwondo; all, p < 0.001; Edwards' TL, r = 0.79 (52), r = 0.80 (64), and r = 0.95 (66) in karate; r = 0.58–0.79 (36), r = 0.68 (38), and r = 0.64 (53) in taekwondo; all p < 0.01) during combat sports training and competition. The correlations were slightly higher in official adult karate competition than in young taekwondo training and competition, which is possibly explained by the fact that adults can better quantify their RPE compared with young athletes (35). The Banister's TRIMP is a poor method to evaluate high-intensity exercise when there is also a significant amount of anaerobic contribution, such as in taekwondo (21), whereas karate may require a much higher percentage contribution of aerobic metabolism when compared with taekwondo (9). In line with this interpretation, data reported in previous studies on male youth taekwondo athletes showed that low session-RPE reliability emerged for the more anaerobic (38) and high intermittent intensity (36) training sessions, whereas the opposite relationship existed in correspondence to predominance of the aerobic energy system (38). Furthermore, it has been reported that the relationship between session-RPE and Edwards' method was higher precompetitive with respect to competitive period, and in the 30 minutes than 1 minute posttraining session in taekwondo athletes (46).
In summary, the session-RPE values were correlated with training load measures obtained from 2 HR-based methods suggested by Edwards (r ranged from 0.58 to 0.95) and Banister (r ranged from 0.52 to 0.86) during striking combat sports training. It has been reported that the relationships between session-RPE and HR-based methods were higher in adult athletes and in the precompetitive period compared with young athletes and the competitive period, respectively. Based on the available studies, it seems that the session-RPE method is a low-cost, noninvasive, and a valuable tool for coaches, sports scientists, and even athletes for monitoring combat and training loads in combat sports, particularly for those sessions that required a high percentage contribution of aerobic metabolism. Therefore, future investigations studying the correlations between session-RPE and HR-based methods during grappling combat sports training still are warranted.
The variation of perception of exertion (RPE or session-RPE) can be explained by a number of factors, such as the competitive level, muscle group, the external stimuli, training modalities (simulated competition vs. training: tactical-technical, technical-development), the intensity of session (high vs. low), the contest type, and sport practiced. For instance, it has been reported that the perceived exertion was lower than the concomitant increase in HR and [La], because in Brazilian jiu-jitsu combats, the [La] was probably formed in the small muscle groups (7). Accordingly, Franchini et al. (34) reported a higher perception of fatigue by black belt athletes of Brazilian jiu-jitsu in the muscle regions of the forearm and shoulder, which are small muscles, thus causing little disruption in the general perceived exertion. Similar findings related to the upper limbs were noted in previous studies observing RPE in the forearm region after simulated Brazilian jiu-jitsu matches (4,5). The same result was also observed in wrestlers after an official competition of Greco-Roman wrestling (50), with higher perceived exertion in the flexors of the forearm (53.3%), followed by the deltoids (17.4%) and the biceps brachii muscles (12.0%). This can be explained by the fact that the forearm muscles are engaged during gripping actions, which are the most used techniques during wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu matches, whereas the quadriceps muscles group is required for guard passes, sweeps, and submissions (42). Thus, when comparing the RPE between the upper body (average scores of forearms, fingers, biceps, chest, trapezius, and abdomen) and the lower body (average scores of quadriceps, abductors, anterior tibia, and feet), no significant differences were reported (RPE upper body: 13 ± 4, lower body: 14 ± 4, p > 0.05) during 3 successive simulated Brazilian jiu-jitsu matches (27). By contrast, Chaabène et al. (20) reported that most karate athletes' perceived exertion was higher in the lower-limb muscles (i.e., quadriceps, hamstring, and triceps sural muscles) irrespective of the karate combat condition. Thus, although the athletes used more upper-limb attack techniques, the constant lower-body displacements during the combat seems to result in more localized fatigue in these body parts. In addition, as the karate techniques involve powerful and fast movements interspersed with long intervals, no significant fatigue was reported in the upper limbs (20). For these reasons, coaches could perform additional lower- and upper-limb conditioning to delay the fatigue of the major muscle groups mentioned above. This approach will allow combat sport athletes to perform combat with less fatigue, which may contribute to better performance.
Invernizzi et al. (40) also reported that RPE values can be affected by the type of activity practiced. Particularly, higher perceptual responses during 4 matches of free karate kumite fighting (40) were reported, compared with values reported in official competitions (66) and simulated matches (65), but were lower than after the Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test (RPE max) (40). It has been also reported that session-RPE was higher at the end of the high-intensity session compared with low intensity (40). Furthermore, Tabben et al. (65) investigated the influence of competitive level (international vs. national) and sex on the perceptual responses in 3 modern karate training modalities (i.e., tactical-technical (TT), technical-development (TD), and randori). They reported a significantly lower session-RPE in karatekas at an international level compared with those at a national level and in TD compared with both TT and randori, and in TT compared with randori. There is another factor influencing the perception of athletes during combats, much of their attention is directed to external stimuli (e.g., sensory and auditory) for decision making, this can decrease the perception of internal load, thus reducing the perception of exertion (18).
The use of RPE scales to monitor training responses has gained popularity among coaches, trainers, and researchers. Among many scales available, the Borg's category scale (6–20) (14), Borg's category ratio-10 scale (12,32), and the modification of the category-ratio scale (31) seem to be the most used in combat sports. Thus, when testing if the session-RPE was an appropriate method to model the responses to long-term training in sports athletes, some authors have reported that the best relationships between amounts of judo training and changes in performance were obtained when training amounts were quantified simply from RPE (2). The same authors also reported that the session-RPE method (developed by Foster) to quantify training load was less adapted than the simplest method based only on the scale (i.e., RPE value) to appreciate the intensity of the training sessions. In addition, based on these studies, it seems that session-RPE is not an appropriate method for the quantification of combat load, during successive official matches and long-term training (33,66).
The results of this review provide evidence that RPE value and session-RPE are simple and inexpensive tools that accurately provide a similar quantification of combat and internal training loads, as assessed by [La] and HR-based methods during simulated and official competitions and training in novice and elite combat sport athletes. Particularly, RPE is an appropriate method to model the responses to long-term training in combat sports athletes and to quantify combat load during simulated and official matches. Both RPE methods may be most reliable when the anaerobic and aerobic systems are appreciably activated. Thus, a variation (moderate to strong) of correlations between RPE or session-RPE and [La] and HR-based methods has been reported. This variation can be explained by the type of combat sports, contest type (simulated vs. official competition vs. training/test), and age of participants. More specifically, session-RPE was affected by the participants' competitive level, the competitive season stage, the intensity of session (high vs. low), and the training modalities (tactical-technical vs. technical-development vs. simulated competition) in combat sports athletes. Therefore, future investigations studying the perceptual responses in combat sports competition and training according to participants' characteristics (e.g., age, sex), weight categories, competitive season stage and contest type are needed to quantifying the level of effort according to each factor.
This psychophysiological assessment of combat sports athletes can help trainers plan training sessions that closely match the real combat situation in terms of perceived exertion, and use an appropriate method to control the stress-recovery balance. This will give the coach the ability to identify how an athlete copes with competition and training-induced stress and develop recovery strategies to negate or reduce this stress, subsequently enhancing performance. Coaches, sports scientists, and athletes can use the session-RPE method to quantify short-term training and combat loads. They can also use the RPE method to monitor combat (across bouts and successive matches in simulated and official contests) and short- and long-term training loads to better plan and asses training programs and competitions.
E. Franchini and W. Moalla contributed equally.
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