Category: Cardio Articles

Perceived Exertion Scale – How to Monitor Your Exercise Intensity

Monitoring Your Intensity with Perceived Exertion

The rate of perceived exertion or RPE is a subjective tool for keeping track of how hard you’re working. During your workouts, think about how you feel and match it to one of the levels listed below to monitor your workout intensity. The general guidelines:

  • Level 3-5: Warm up Warm ups will be between Level 3-5
  • Level 5-8: Getting into your target heart rate zone during cardio
  • Levels 9-10: More advanced activities like high intensity interval training, climbing Mount Everest or sprinting from a rabid dog

Your perceived exertion, or your RPE, refers to how hard an exercise feels. For my workouts, I like to use a 1-10 scale like this one:

Perceived Exertion Chart

Level 1 – I’m lounging around watching TV and feeling great.

Level 2 – I just got up and got myself a glass of wine. Now I feel even better.

Level 3 – I’m taking a leisurely stroll and could probably do this all day, especially if I had more wine.

Level 4 – I’m moving faster now and am starting to sweat. This is starting to feel suspiciously like exercise.

Level 5 – Now I know I’m exercising, but I’m only a little out of my comfort zone. I can still talk.

Level 6 – I’m working harder now and can still talk, but it’s getting harder. I could use that wine right about now.

Level 7 – Okay, now I’m breathing harder and I can talk, but only in very short sentences.

Level 8 – I’m working really hard and can only stay at this level for a short time. No way can I talk.

Level 9 – Gun to head? I could talk. I think I might be dying.

Level 10 – I am dead.

What is High Intensity Interval Training and Why Should You Care?

If you pay any kind of attention to fitness and exercise, you’ve probably heard of high intensity interval training. In fact, HIIT is about the hottest ticket in the fitness world because there are so many benefits like:

    • You get in shape faster  — Studies have shown that you can build endurance more quickly with interval training than you can with steady state cardio.
    • Everything else gets easier – This kind of workout actually teaches your heart to pump more blood to your muscles. At the same time, it also teaches your muscles how to extract oxygen from that blood more efficiently. That means all the other stuff you do, exercise and just daily movement, gets easier because your body is trained to respond faster.
    • Shorter workouts — Because you’re working at a high intensity for short periods of time, your workouts will typically be shorter, a good thing if you’re busy or just don’t want to workout that long. In fact, one study concluded that HIIT can improve your health enough that inactive women who don’t want to spend a lot of time exercising can still achieve fitness with these kinds of workouts.
    • More fun – So, ‘fun’ may be a strong word to use with exercise, but interval training does tend to be more enjoyable than other workouts. Why? Because there’s some variety. You’re not just getting on a machine and going nowhere. You’re changing your settings or maybe even your exercises, making the workout feel shorter.
    • More weight loss – If you work hard, your body burns more fat and you get that afterburn, the calories your body expends after the workout to get your body back to its pre-exercise state.

Now, The Drawbacks

Of course, interval training isn’t perfect and it isn’t for everyone. Because it involves high intensity there are some things to consider:

  • You’re a beginner, overweight and/or have joint problems – If you look at a typical interval workout, it usually involves a lot of jumping and working really hard. If you’re a long-time exerciser, fine. But if not, beginners may be wary of this kind of training. Studies have shown that the right kind of HIIT can be done by overweight people or even people with diabetes or other conditions. The key is to start with lower intensity exercises and gradually increase the intensity (don’t worry, I have a workout for you).
  • It’s hard – It’s hard to work hard and not everyone likes the feeling of working hard. It’s uncomfortable, right? But, like I said, you’re not working uncomfortably hard right out of the gate if you’re a beginner. Don’t forget that.
  • It can cause injury – If you do it too much or do the exercises wrong, you can put your body at risk for injury. Of course, walking across your kitchen can cause injury, too, so there you go. At least in my house with a dog roughly the size of a pony and two cats.

With all that said, what’s the bottom line here? What I’m suggesting is that you try interval training at least once a week if you’re not already doing it…even if you’re a beginner.

That said, here’s the bottom line – If you’ve never done HIIT before, you need to start slow and easy. That means your high intensity intervals will keep you just out of your comfort zone – Like a Level 6 or 7 on a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is sitting on the couch eating bonbons and 10 is a breathless, death-like feeling.

Getting Started

If I’ve convinced you to give it a try, good because I have and idea for getting you started and here it is:

Tabata Training

Yes, that’s a thing.

I really like doing this kind of HIIT training with my clients, especially beginners because it moves quickly and it doesn’t feel as miserable as other cardio workouts.

Here’s the deal: Years ago Dr. Izumi Tabata, a professor in Japan wanted to help the Japanese speed skating team improve their performance.

So he did a study where he took participants through a 4-minute workout. The exercisers were on a stationary bike and they did 20 seconds of all-out sprints followed by 10 seconds of rest. They repeated that 8 times for 4 minutes.

They found that the skaters did much better with that kind of training than other types of cardio.

You’re probably not a speed skater, so what do this have to do with you? Well, like everything in life, when a study comes out about some new whoopy-zing workout, fitness professionals realize they have a new way to their clients in new and exciting ways.

Should You Tabata and, If So, How?

Yes, I think you should Tabata and I’m going to tell you how to do it.

As I mentioned before, this is a HIIT workout and, in the original study the exercisers did all-out sprints.

You don’t have to do that, nor should you if you’re new to this kind of training. If you’re a pro, go for it.

The Basics

Okay, so here’s what you need to do for a Tabata Workout:

  • Warm up thoroughly
  • Do an exercise working as hard as you can for 20 seconds. Now, that is as hard as you can work – That may mean an all out sprint or marching in place. Maybe it’s even just doing some arm circles – Whatever feels like a bit of a challenge.
  • Rest for 10 seconds
  • Repeat that exercise (or a different one) 8 more times.
  • If you’re good with that length of workout, stop there. Otherwise, pick another exercise and do another Tabata. A typical Tabata workout might last from 10 minutes (including the warm up) to 45 or more minutes depending on your fitness level and how hard you’re working.

Here Are Some Ideas

  1. Tabata Outside – If you’re walking or running, warm up and then speed up as fast as you can for 20 seconds, resting for 10 and then repeat that for 4 minutes. Take 1 or 2 minutes to recover and then repeat as many times as you like.
  2. At the Gym – You can also do Tabata training on any cardio machine. Just speed up or increase the incline or resistance for 20 seconds, rest for 10 and repeat 8 times.
  3. At Home – My favorite way of doing Tabata at home is to choose 4 exercises. For high impact, you can choose things like jumping jacks, jogging with high knees, burpees, and jumping lunges. For low impact, think about step touches, knee lifts, marching in place and hamstring curls. Do each one for 20 seconds, rest for 10 and repeat for 4 minutes. Then choose 4 more exercises or keep doing the same ones for about 15-30 minutes. Here are some to try:
    1. Beginner Tabata Workout – PDF
    2. Advanced Tabata Workout – PDF
    3. Tabata Video Workouts

Believe it or not, the workout seems to move much faster when you workout like this. You’re only focused on that 20 seconds of work rather than a big chunk of exercise that may seem a little overwhelming.

Some Tips

  • Always warm up – always, always, always. Give yourself at least 5 minutes of cardio before doing anything high intensity.
  • Check yourself – Because your rests are shorter than the work sets, the intensity accumulates throughout the 4 minutes. So, if you’re doing it right, you should be pretty breathless (or at least working hard) by the end of the Tabata. Give yourself a little time to recover and see how you feel.
  • Use a Tabata Timer – Trying to watch a clock for 20 seconds is a big pain in the rear. If you have a smartphone or tablet, try using a Tabata timer. I like the Tabata Pro Timer.
  • Work at your own level of intensity – You want the intervals to feel challenging, but not so awful that you never want to workout again. If you practice, you’ll be able to do more over time.
  • Try 1-2 Workouts a Week – Too much HIIT can cause burnout and overtraining, so you don’t want to overdo it. Mix it up so that you have a little bit of everything, like some steady state cardio, some weight training, etc.

Got a question? Email me and we’ll work it out.


ACE – Certified: June 2017 – How to Safely and Effectively Use HIIT With Clients Struggling With Obesity. ACE Fitness. /certifiedarticle/6406/how-to-safely-and-effectively-use-hiit-with. Accessed June 19, 2017.

Ghodsi Z, Nasrin, Zolfaghari MR, Fattah A. The Impact of High Intensity Interval Training On Lipid Profile, Inflammatory Markers and Anthropometric Parameters in Inactive Women. Medical Laboratory Journal. 2016;10(1):56-60. doi:10.18869/acadpub.mlj.10.1.56.

Trapp EG, Chisholm DJ, Freund J, Boutcher SH. The effects of high-intensity intermittent exercise training on fat loss and fasting insulin levels of young women. Int J Obes. 2008;32(4):684-691. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0803781.