6 Ways to Measure Exercise Intensity (To Get the Most Out of Your Workouts)

Cathe Friedrich exercise intensity in STS 2.0 Muscle & Recovery

You may already know that exercise is beneficial for your well-being, but do you know how to assess the intensity of your workout? Are you working out at a moderate intensity, a brisk stroll, a jog, or something more energetic like interval training? This can be a bit tricky, whether you are just beginning your fitness journey or even if you’ve been exercising for quite some time. Don’t worry, though! Whether you’re just starting or you’re already a seasoned pro, there are ways to measure exercise and determine the intensity that’s right for you.

Perceived level of exertion

Perceived level of exertion is how hard you feel like you’re working and it’s a non-techy way that requires no equipment. It’s an important measure because it’s the only one that considers your perceived effort. If you’re not measuring perceived exertion, you could be over- or underestimating how hard your workout was–and missing out on the benefits of a more intense workout.

Perceived exertion can be measured using the Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion (RPE). This scale measures perceived effort based on a 1-10 scale, where 1 is no effort at all and 10 is maximum effort. You can find Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion Charts online to determine your level of exertion. There are five main categories in this scale: “no exertion at all” or “very little exertion,” “some moderate,” “quite a bit,” and “extreme.” You can use these labels to describe how hard you’re exercising during a workout.

Talk test

The talk test is a simple and reliable method for monitoring exercise intensity. It provides a way to roughly gauge their exertion level and adjust their physical activity accordingly. The talk test works by assessing the ability to talk while exercising.

If you can carry on a conversation while working out, your intensity is around 65-75% of your maximum. If you’re breathing hard but can still talk in full sentences, your intensity is in the 75-85% range. When breathing becomes more difficult and requires frequent breaks from speaking, you’ve reached 85-95%. At 95%+ of your max heart rate (MHR), talking becomes impossible because it’s too difficult to get enough oxygen into the lungs. If you find yourself having to take frequent pauses to catch your breath while speaking, your intensity has reached the highest level.

Heart rate zone training

Are you ready to take your workouts to the next level? Heart rate zone training is a great way to do just that! To start, take your resting heart rate, then figure out your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. That number is your maximum heart rate.

To determine your heart rate zones, calculate 50-60% of your maximum heart rate for the lowest zone, 60-70% for the moderate zone, 70-80% for the hard zone, and 80-90% for the maximum zone. During exercise, monitor your heart rate to ensure it is within the desired zone for the intensity you desire.

If your heart rate is too low, adjust the intensity of your exercise. If your heart rate is too high, reduce the intensity of your workout. With heart rate zone training, you can measure your exercise intensity and adjust your activity accordingly. Each zone has a different purpose in helping you reach different goals, whether it’s improving cardiovascular endurance or building muscle mass.

Oxygen consumption

The previous methods are simple methods you can do to estimate exercise intensity, but what if you want to know what your maximum exercise ability is, also known as your aerobic capacity? Your VO2 max is the maximum capacity of an individual’s body to transport and use oxygen during incremental exercise. In other words, it’s a measure of how efficiently your body can take in oxygen and use it for energy production during exercise.

You can measure VO2 max with a VO2 max test. This test consists of treadmill walking or running on a preset grade at progressively faster speeds while a technician monitors your heart rate and oxygen consumption with each stage of speed increase until you’re exhausted and can’t continue. Your score indicates your aerobic fitness level–the higher the score, the greater your aerobic fitness level. You won’t be able to do this at home. You’ll need to go to a center that offers this service.

Power meters/trainers

Power meters are another to measure intensity. You can attach one to a bike, treadmill, or elliptical machine. They’re usually expensive, so if you’re just starting, it may not be the best option for you.

Power meters are popular with cyclists. They measure the amount of power generated by the athlete performing physical activity and display the information on an easy-to-read display. Power meters typically feature a strain gauge, or a device that measures the force applied to it, which is mounted onto the frame of the bike, or the crank of the bike.

The strain gauge measures the force applied to the pedal when the cyclist is pedaling, and the power meter then converts this force into watts. The power meter then transmits this information to the display in real time, allowing the user to track their exercise intensity and make changes to their training plan accordingly.

In addition, power meters can also measure the speed, distance, and cadence of cyclists, giving them valuable insight into the dynamics of their workout. This helps them determine whether they’re working hard enough during each session.

Listen to your body

It’s not precise, but you can get an idea of how intensely you’re exercising by noticing how your body feels and how you’re breathing. If you’re not sure how to interpret your breathing, think about this: when you’re doing something strenuous–like running or riding an intense stationary bike–your body will start to breathe harder as it works harder. This is known as respiratory compensation, and it’s a sign that your body is increasing its oxygen consumption (and thus exercising at a higher intensity).

You can also measure your workout intensity by how hard you feel like you’re working out. If you’re breathing hard and your legs are burning, you’re pushing yourself hard.


There you have it! Five ways to measure the intensity of your workout. You can use simple methods, like the talk test, perceived exertion, or heart rate. If you want more accurate numbers, try using one of these methods as a starting point before moving on to something like power meters or VO2 max testing.


  • Can you sing while you work out? Mayo Clinic. Published 2021. Accessed December 30, 2022. mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/exercise-intensity/art-20046887.
  • Markell D, Peterson D. Measuring Intensity. Pressbooks.pub. Published December 15, 2021. Accessed December 30, 2022. mhcc.pressbooks.pub/hpe172/chapter/measuring-intensity/

Related Articles By Cathe:

Exercise Intensity: 3 Ways to Measure How Hard You’re Exercising

Exercise Intensity: How Good Are You at Judging How Hard You’re Exercising?

How Do You Know if You’re Working Out Hard Enough?

4 Benefits of Wearing a Heart Rate Monitor During Exercise

Using Maximal Heart Rate to Measure Exercise Intensity – Is the Formula Flawed?

Endurance Exercise Adaptations: 6 Things That Exercise Increases

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How Accurate Is Maximum Heart Rate for Measuring Exercise Intensity?

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