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Exercise > Exercising Methods > Workout Intensity

Workout Intensity

Workout Intensity:

You’ve made the step towards health and decided to engage in aerobic exercise to control weight, improve your health status, and to reduce your obesity-related disease risks. Knowing reasoning for aerobic exercise, as well as your overall goals, helps to best determine the intensity, frequency, duration and progression of your exercise program. Just how hard should you push yourself during your daily workouts?

Always check with your health care provider prior to starting an exercise program! If you’re a beginner to exercise, start out gradually and build up to a level that’s tolerable. Jumping into an intense workout program can lead to injury. Learn to exercise based on how you feel and most importantly, on what you consider to be fun and enjoyable.

Your best chance to achieve success will come from changing both your workouts and workout intensity on a regular basis. This will keep your body from slipping into a plateau, as well as reduce your risk of injury from repetitive wear and tear. Change also serves to keep your metabolism ramped up and working at its best potential! Additionally, by adjusting your workout’s speed and intensity, you’ll look forward to a fresh new workout each day instead of the same old boring routine.  

To achieve the healthiest cardiovascular benefits from your workout, it’s best to exercise within a recommended intensity range as well as to vary your workouts based on length and intensity. Your doctor, coach or trainer can best help you determine your Heart Rate Range. 

Heart Rate is the number of heartbeats per unit of time, usually expressed as beats per minute (BPM). For an adult, a normal resting heart rate ranges from 60 to 100 beats a minute. For a well-trained athlete, a normal resting heart rate may be closer to 40 beats a minute. 

A target zone is an upper and lower heart rate limit range containing the number of beats per minute that your heart beats during your workout. By keeping your intensity level between this upper and lower level for a proper amount of time, you will be able to achieve the best results and success.  

There are several different recommended target zones to adhere to; each helps to achieve a specific exercise goal.  By regularly changing your weekly workout schedule to vary your intensity and heart rate, you will begin to improve your speed, endurance, distance capacity and overall fitness.  

There are three common ways to measure just how hard you’re working during your exercise or training session – Target Heart Rate, Rate of Perceived Exertion, and the Talk Test. As you become more involved in training and working out on a regular basis, you can decide which method bests works for you.

Target Heart Rate

Target Heart Rate (THR) is an invaluable tool that is used to determine if you’re exercising at an appropriate level. This tool helps to provide improvement in cardiovascular conditioning while exercising at a safe level. Target Heart Rate the desired range of heart rate reached during aerobic exercise that enables your heart and lungs to receive the most benefit from a workout. It’s recommended that an appropriate range for most healthy individuals to exercise at is a level between 55-85% of your maximum heart rate. With the exception of highly trained advanced athletes looking to push themselves to the limit, it’s not recommended to exercise above 85% of your maximum heart rate.

Rate of Perceived Exertion

Whether you’re new to aerobic exercise or a fitness enthusiast, anyone can use perceived exertion to effectively gauge exercise intensity. One of the easiest ways to monitor your exercise intensity is to rate perceived exertion, or how strenuous the activity seems to you. By becoming familiar with the rate of perceived exertion chart (RPE) below, you can easily and quite accurately assess your exercise intensity and ensure a proper level of exertion. Your exercise intensity should be within a range appropriate for your fitness levels, plans, and goals.  

Rate of perceived exertion is a good way to monitor exercise intensity because it provides an easier method to help you find your appropriate training and workout effort ranges. Determining rate of perceived exertion can be performed during a workout without having to stop to calculate your heart rate, especially if you don’t own a heart rate monitor. By using RPE, you can more accurately describe your sensation of effort when exercising and gauge how hard you’re working in order to assist you in getting the best results from your exercise. 

Perceived exertion is measured using a chart ranging from 0 – 10. The greater your exertion, the higher your perceived level will be. Remember, the rate of your exertion is dependant only upon how hard you feel you’re working out, not on the speed or distance you are traveling.

                                                         The 10-point scale:


Nothing; activities such as sitting around and watching television, or using the computer


Very light; activities such as crossing the room to get where you want to go


Light; activities such as slow movements to help get your body warmed up


Moderate; a “just got started” feeling that you can effortlessly keep for your entire workout


Somewhat hard; a comfortable pace during your favorite cardio routine


Heavy; still a comfortable pace, but you’re working harder to maintain it


Heavy+; you’re beginning to breathe harder and feel the strain of the exercise


Very heavy; a difficult training session; you’re starting to test yourself


Very heavy+; a race pace effort that you can sustain for the entire event


Very heavy ++; a burst of additional effort during a race or extremely intense workout


Very, very heavy; an all-out effort

The recommended RPE range to achieve the best results varies based on your current fitness levels and goals. For most, a range of between 3 (moderate) and 5 (strong) is suggested for most of your training and workout sessions. As you start to improve fitness levels and reach plateaus, there will be time when training both harder and lighter will help you achieve your goals.

Talk Test

The Talk Test is a simple and easy way to tell if you're working out at a proper intensity. For best results, your workout should be intense enough to make you breathe hard and make you feel somewhat winded. You should still be able to carry on a conversation while you’re exercising. If you’re unable to speak to your workout partner or coach while training, then you’re most likely working out too hard for a general workout session. If you can sing your favorite song at the top of your lungs, you probably want to step up your effort a little. On the other hand, if you can barely speak a word, slow down and get back to a more comfortable pace. The Talk Test is a great way for beginner and novice athletes to begin to understand their bodies in order to achieve best results.

Training Zones

Many of the most successful training plans are based on intensity. Intensity is best broken down into five distinct training zones. Most heart rate training zone values are based on running, but maximum heart rate and training zones will be different for different sports, depending on the nature of the activity. For example, for biking zones you should subtract 10 beats per minute, and you should take off an additional 10-15 beats per minute for swimming zones. There are many different ways that you can use zone information to help achieve better overall fitness levels. If you’re an athlete, or just someone who wants to improve sports performance, you can use zone training to give you a competitive edge over the competition.

Your training zones are created based on a percentage of generally one of three values: lactate threshold, VO2 max, or maximum heart rate.

Lactate Threshold 

Lactate Threshold is the point at which your body can no longer get rid of the lactic acid produced by your muscles, and it starts to accumulate in the blood. At this point, aerobic metabolism switches to anaerobic metabolism, and you are usually unable to continue with your high intensity workout. Lactate threshold is measured by drawing a small blood sample. It’s closely correlated with heart rate and breathing rate. Lactate threshold has been shown to be one of the best predictors of endurance performance.

VO2 Max 

VO2 Max represents the maximum amount of oxygen that can be transported by the body and used by the muscles during a specified period of time. Your base VO2 Max is genetically determined, but you can increase it by training. Measuring lactate threshold requires a medical test while on a treadmill or stationary bike. It can also be estimated based on very specific "field tests" conducted by professionals.

Maximum Heart Rate

The most efficient method to calculate your maximum heart rate (MHR) is to use a simple formula.

Maximum Heart Rate = 220 – Age in Year

Therefore, if you’re 40 years old, simply take 220-40 (your age in years) to find out that your maximum heart rate in this case is 180. Please remember that this is estimation, and you should get an exact number by consulting your doctor, coach or personal trainer. Maximum heart rate generally declines with age – it declines from about 220 beats per minute in childhood to around 160 beats per minute at age 60.

Once you have determined your maximum heart rate, you can efficiently develop your own personal zone ranges. 

Zone 1 – Zone 5

Zone 1: 50-60% of your maximum heart rate. This is the warm up/cool down zone. This is an easy and comfortable zone to exercise in, and you’ll be able to carry on a full conversation in this zone. You can definitely get healthier in this zone, but you will not have a marked improvement in strength or endurance. In this zone, the body burns off mostly fat. 

Zone 2: 60-70% of your maximum heart rate. This is the fat-burning zone where you will be able to burn a higher percentage of stored fat rather than carbohydrates. This zone is best for long endurance workouts or easy speed workouts. You should be breathing more heavily, but will still be able to speak in short sentences. 

Zone 3: 70-80% of your maximum heart rate. This zone requires more calories to be burned, which will result in improved fitness. Fat and carbohydrates are used up at an equal ratio. In zone 3, you should be breathing very hard and able only to speak in short phrases. 

Zone 4: 80-90% of your maximum heart rate. In this zone, your body is working very hard to sustain the effort level and usually cannot do so for more than an hour. You should be unable to speak except a single, gasped word at a time when in this zone. 

Zone 5: 90-100% of your maximum heart rate. This is an all-out effort that can only be done a few minutes at a time at most because of the severe strain on your body. You will be unable to speak except for gasping single words. There are few reasons to train at this level, as this zone has increased potential for injury.

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