How to measure intensity: How hard am I working?

There are several methods of measuring intensity during a workout. Three common methods used are heart rate, rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and the talk test. These methods may be used alone or in combination.

Heart Rate:

You can determine your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. To determine a training zone, multiply that number by a lower percentage and again by a higher percentage. For example: I am 47 years old and I would like to train between 65% and 85% of my maximum heart rate. I would calculate my training zone as follows. Maximum heart rate: 220-47=173 bpm

Lower training level: 173 x 0.65=112 bpm 

Upper training level: 173 x 0.85=147 bpm

I would therefore attempt to keep my heart rate between 112 bpm and 147 bpm during my workout. It will of course be lower during the warm up and cool down.

Heart rate training is just an estimate. It is a good place to start and track changes over time. In other words, when you begin exercising you may find that your heart rate goes up quickly and comes down slowly. After training for a month, your heart rate may go up more slowly and come down quickly when doing the same program. This indicates that the same amount of work is easier for you to do and the heart has become more efficient at handling that workload. Many medications and stimulants will affect heart rate.

Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE):  

This is simply a scale which an individual uses to determine how hard he/she is working. It is also called the Borg scale and is usually rated between 1 and 10 or 6 and 20 depending upon which scale is used.

The Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is a way of measuring physical activity intensity level. Perceived exertion is how hard you feel like your body is working. It is based on the physical sensations a person experiences during physical activity, including increased heart rate, increased respiration or breathing rate, increased sweating, and muscle fatigue. Although this is a subjective measure, a person’s exertion rating may provide a fairly good estimate of the actual heart rate during physical activity* (Borg, 1998).

Instructions for Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Scale

While doing physical activity, we want you to rate your perception of exertion. This feeling should reflect how heavy and strenuous the exercise feels to you, combining all sensations and feelings of physical stress, effort, and fatigue. Do not concern yourself with any one factor such as leg pain or shortness of breath, but try to focus on your total feeling of exertion.

Look at the rating scale below while you are engaging in an activity; it ranges from 6 to 20, where 6 means “no exertion at all” and 20 means “maximal exertion.” Choose the number from below that best describes your level of exertion. This will give you a good idea of the intensity level of your activity, and you can use this information to speed up or slow down your movements to reach your desired range.

Try to appraise your feeling of exertion as honestly as possible, without thinking about what the actual physical load is. Your own feeling of effort and exertion is important, not how it compares to other people’s. Look at the scales and the expressions and then give a number.

6 No exertion at all

7 Extremely light (7.5) 8

9 Very light


11 Light


13 Somewhat hard


15 Hard (heavy)


17 Very hard


19 Extremely hard

20 Maximal exertion

9 corresponds to “very light” exercise. For a healthy person, it is like walking slowly at his or her own pace for some minutes

13 on the scale is “somewhat hard” exercise, but it still feels OK to continue.

17 “very hard” is very strenuous. A healthy person can still go on, but he or she really has to push him- or herself. It feels very heavy, and the person is very tired.

19 on the scale is an extremely strenuous exercise level. For most people this is the most strenuous exercise they have ever experienced.

Borg RPE scale © Gunnar Borg, 1970, 1985, 1994, 1998

Talk Test:

The talk test is a simple way to measure relative intensity. As a rule of thumb, if you’re doing moderate-intensity activity you can talk, but not sing, during the activity. If you’re doing vigorous-intensity activity, you will not be able to say more than a few words without pausing for a breath. If you cannot talk, you are working at a high intensity which you can sustain for very brief periods.






Cardio Kickboxing

Cardio kickboxing class is a fun way to get a great full body workout. Cardio kickboxing can be a high intensity class without being high impact. It is definitely a program where you get out of it what you put into it. The Cardio Kickboxing classes that I teach in Columbus, WI are no contact, meaning that we do not hit each other but we may occassionaly hit and kick x-ray paper, hand pads, or body shields.

Cardio kickboxing class is different from martial arts training because the goal is very different. Cardio kickboxing is training for cardiovascular health. The goal is to get the heart rate up by repetitively working large muscle groups. Secondary goals include improving strength, balance and boosting metabolism. We do utilize moves from various forms of martial arts primarily Tae Kwon Do, however, we are not teaching martial arts in this class. You do not need to have a martial arts background to enjoy the benefits of Cardio Kickboxing. The majority of my students have no martial background whatsoever.

A typical class will include a warm up, 30-45 minutes of cardio, 10-15 minutes of toning and conditioning, and a cool down with a stretch.

There are four main kicks that we use in cardio kickboxing. They include a front snap kick, back kick, side kick, and a roundhouse kick. There are also four main punches which include jab, cross punch, hook, and uppercut. These can be used in various combinations to keep class interesting. They will also be combined with basic fitness exercises such as  squats, lunges, jumping jacks, etc. Again, the goal is to get the heart rate up. There are modifications for each exercise to make it easier or harder depending on your personal fitness level and goals.

Common benefits of Cardio Kickboxing are improved cardiovascular health, improved strength, balance, endurance, and reduced body fat. Many students see reductions in waist and hip circumference, large gains in core strength, and a toned upper body.

Which Exercise is the Best?

This is the most frequently asked question I get whether it be regarding cardio, strength training, improving performance or simply stretching.  The answer obviously depends on what you are wanting to do and why but I can tell you for a fact that the “BEST” exercise is one you will actually do. Good intentions and brilliant plans do no good if you don’t follow through.  Finding activities that you enjoy will help you to stay active over the long term. A good program will include cardiovascular training, strength, flexibility, and balance training as well as adequate amounts of sleep and sound nutrition. It is not necessary to spend hours in a gym in order to stay healthy. If you find that enjoyable, go for it, but don’t guilt yourself if it is not your thing.