• Tim Hennigan

Where Do You Rate on the 1-10 Scale?

Rate of Perceived Exertion

Cardiovascular Fitness

It has been a widely studied topic and it is well documented that cardiovascular fitness is one the single most important factors impacting lifespan and quality of life. Strength and mobility are also important, but cardiovascular fitness determines how much activity we can perform and at what level. Because cardiovascular fitness is so essential, it is implemented in all of the programs that I prescribe for my clients.

Aerobic fitness is the term that refers to the body’s ability to bring in oxygen, deliver oxygen-rich blood to all of the tissues of the body and the body’s ability to then use that oxygen to make energy and remove the waste products while performing work.

When performing exercise aimed at improving your cardiovascular fitness, aerobic fitness and endurance, the program can be very tightly prescribed to target specific target heart rates or monitored less formally, targeting what feels intense to the person doing the exercise. This less formal method is your Rate of Perceived Exertion.

Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)

The original RPE scale was described by Gunnar Borg, professor emeritus of Perception and Psychophysics at Stockholm University, in 1982. Borg’s research was based on monitoring exercise by the perception of effort on the part of the exerciser instead of cardiovascular factors. What he found was that when perceived strain and discomfort were combined with respiratory rate and heart rate, they could be used to determine relative work level. Borg’s original scale was numbered 6-20, reflecting heart rates of 60-200, and levels of perceived exertion on that scale.

Because of the correlation of heart rate relative to respiratory effort, the scale has been modified to reflect a scale of 1-10 measuring perceived exertion on the part of the exerciser.

Whether you are performing circuit training, steady-state cardio or HIIT training your RPE will quickly, easily and constantly allow you to monitor your effort to ensure you are getting the most out of your workout by using the “talk test” to place your level exertion on the RPE scale.

Talk Test and RPE

As you exercise, your body temperature increases, your muscles create lactate, your muscles require more oxygen to create energy, your body’s pH decreases and your body has an increase in carbon dioxide production. This results in an increase in heart rate, and respiratory rate. Obviously, as your respiratory rate increases, your ability to converse becomes more difficult. The amount of difficulty you have speaking, due to your increased respiratory rate, is used as a predictive guide to what your heart rate is. The “talk test”, therefore, is used with the RPE scale to increase the accuracy of training heart rates.

How Does This Help Cardiovascular Fitness and Endurance?

Without getting too far down into the weeds, your body has a very complex system in which it utilizes stored fuel in the body to produce energy when work is being performed. As this stored energy is used, the body creates new energy from other sources of fuel. At the same time waste products are produced that must be eliminated. Your ability to continue performing work at a given intensity is your endurance. Your endurance is based on how efficient your body is at producing energy to continue work while ridding itself of the waste products. If we want to improve our body’s efficiency, we must push ourselves to our body’s threshold. Our bodies are marvelous machines. As we continue to push our body to its threshold, it adapts, becoming more efficient over time at producing needed energy and ridding itself of waste products while maintaining work at higher intensities for longer periods of time.

A well designed fitness program will constantly challenge your body and progress its efficiency, resulting in improved cardiovascular fitness and endurance. Utilizing the RPE scale in conjunction with the talk test to gauge your intensity and push your body to its ventilatory threshold will allow you to do all of these things.

Program Guidelines

Realizing improvements in your cardiovascular and aerobic fitness and endurance requires you to push yourself. If you don’t, you will not reap the rewards of your time invested in your program. I constantly find that exercisers put in hours and hours of work, but never push themselves to that threshold that will cause their bodies to adapt and result in the gains they are aiming for.

If you have worked out in a public gym for any period of time and headed over to the “cardio” area of the gym to get your sweat on with the stair stepper, elliptical, treadmill, stationary bike, etc., you have probably seen these people. They are the ones that are on the machines for 60-90 minutes with a slight sheen from the little bit of sweat being created while they walk, ride or step at a steady, comfortable pace that allows them to easily read the magazine or book they have open on the console of the machine. While this is better than sitting in a chair as they read, they will not see any significant rewards for their efforts. They are not pushing their body’s ventilatory threshold for cardiovascular improvement, nor are they kicking up their metabolism to see any note-able changes in their body composition (but that is a subject for another day).

You want results for you efforts. So here are some guidelines to help you with applying the RPE and talk test to your workouts.

When you are performing steady-state cardio activities (running, walking, cycling, rowing, stepping, etc.), you want to maintain an RPE of 5-7 (moderate to difficult) for the duration of your workout session.

When performing High Intensity Interval Training (HITT), you are aiming for RPE of 6-9 (moderately difficult to very difficult) during the high intensity periods and an RPE of 1-3 during the low intensity periods. You should also strive to increase your total time spent performing your HIIT training periods.

RPE Scale


1,2 Very Easy (you can converse with no effort)

3 Easy (you can converse with almost no effort)

4 Moderately Easy (you can converse comfortably with little effort)

5 Moderate (conversation requires some effort)

6 Moderately Difficult (conversation requires quite a bit of effort)

7 Difficult (conversation requires a lot of effort, 5-6 word sentences)

8 Very Difficult (conversation requires maximum effort, 2-3 word statements)

9,10 Peak Effort (no-talking zone)