Talk Test and Monitoring Exercise Intensity

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The talk test is one of the easiest ways to monitor your exercise intensity on a scale. To do it, you see if you can talk during activity. If you can talk but not sing for instance, you are likely performing moderately intense exercise. If you are unable to talk at all, you're performing intense exercise. Here is what you need to know about this simple-to-use measurement.

Purpose of the Talk Test

The idea behind the talk test is that the harder you work, the more breathless you become and the harder it is to talk. By monitoring that, you can determine whether you're working at a lower intensity, a moderate intensity—which is the minimum you want to work during cardio—and a high intensity. Unlike other exercise measurement, like a heart rate monitor, you do not need any equipment. All you really need is the ability to talk and breathe. Whether you can do both at the same time is where your intensity comes in.

Options for the Talk Test

Option 1: The Pledge of Allegiance

  • During your workout, say the Pledge of Allegiance (or anything you like, really).
  • Ask yourself if you can speak comfortably. If the answer is yes, you're at a low intensity. If the answer is no, you're at or above a Level 5 on the perceived exertion scale.

Option 2: How High Can You Count

  • Before you start your workout, count as high as you can as you exhale
  • During your workout, count again during your exhale and compare those numbers. If the number counted during exercise drops to about 70%, you're working at or above Level 5.

Other Options

The talk test is probably the easiest way to monitor your intensity, but there are other options as well.

  • Perceived Exertion — This is another easy way to monitor your intensity without needing equipment like a heart rate monitor. This is also subjective, so you have to be honest about how hard you're working. The idea is to rank your intensity on a scale of 1 to 10. One is like sitting around, playing Candy Crush, while 10 is like sprinting for your life from a knife-wielding maniac. You want to stay somewhere between 5 and 9 depending on the workout you're doing.
  • Your Target Heart Rate — You can use a heart rate monitor to make sure you're working in your target heart rate zone.

Ideal Workout Intensity

So you have all these methods of tracking hard do you want to work?

It's a good idea to work at a variety of intensities:

  • Low Intensity: This is about a Level 3-5 on the Perceived Exertion Scale. You might work at this intensity when you're warming up or if you're doing a longer workout, like a long bike ride, walk, or run. This might also be an intensity you work at if you take walks throughout the day. Try this intensity about once a week.
  • Moderate Intensity: This is about a Level 5-7 on the Perceived Exertion Scale and where most of your workouts will fall. Think of getting on a cardio machine or going for a run and being at that place where you can talk, but only a few words. Try this level about 1–2 times a week.
  • High Intensity: This is about a Level 8-9 on the Perceived Exertion Scale and a level you can only work at for short periods of time. You might work at this intensity when doing high-intensity interval training. Shoot for one, maybe two times a week with lots of rest in between.
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  • American Council on Exercise. ACE Personal Trainer Manual, 5th Edition. San Diego: American Council on Exercise, 2014.
  • Foster, Carl Ph.D.; Porcari, John P. Ph.D.; Anderson, Jennifer MS. "The Talk Test as a Marker of Exercise Training Intensity." Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation & Prevention. January/February 2008 - Volume 28 - Issue 1 - p 24–30.  doi: 10.1097/01.HCR.0000311504.41775.78.

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."