All you really need is the ability to (kind of) talk and breathe.

By Faith Brar
December 16, 2019
Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

You've heard the saying, "no pain, no gain". That might be true to a degree, but when it comes to working out, it's hard to draw the line between flooding your body with stress hormones (AKA cortisol) and not challenging yourself enough to produce adaptation. But a new video by Mayo Clinic might help you demystify your workout "level" once and for all.

In the video, the medical research center breaks down what "vigorous physical activity" really means. For starters, all workouts are split into three levels. To help determine the level you're at and your overall intensity, they suggest using the age-old "talk test". (Related: How to Guarantee Your Workout is Always Working)

The test itself is pretty straightforward and requires no equipment, so you can do this anywhere and at any point in your workout. The idea is that the harder you work, the more breathless you should become, making it more difficult for you to talk. So by monitoring your ability to breathe and speak simultaneously, you can determine whether you're working at a low intensity (level one), a moderate-intensity (level two) or a high intensity (level three).

"Breathing is a helpful baseline for understanding the intensity level of your training," says Beau Burgau a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and founder of GRIT Training. "If you can carry out a conversation while training, your session intensity is light or in the active recovery mode," adds Burgau. "When you want to get the most out of your workout, your intensity needs to be vigorous or at least moderate." (See: How to Improve Your Lactate Threshold)

Here's how to use the "talk test" to gauge what level you're at and how to test yourself mid-workout:

The Talk Test

Level One: Break out into song. If you can carry a tune from start to finish, then your workout falls at this level, according to the Mayo Clinic.

This is anything from a fast walk to a low-intensity bike ride, says Burgau. "These workouts are great for warming-up or active rest days," he explains.

Level Two: To test if you’re in that zone, try saying the pledge of allegiance. If you can still say it but you’re breathing hard, you’re working out moderately or at a level two.

Some moderate level exercises include simple bodyweight movements like squats or planks (for strength) and burpees or jumping jacks (for endurance), says Burgau. (Related: The Best Bodyweight Exercises for Getting Fit Anywhere)

Level Three: Talking should be near impossible at this level. If you find yourself unable to utter a few words without taking a breath, the Mayo Clinic says you're working out vigorously or at a level three.

Adding resistance and structural loading with exercises like barbell back squats and deadlifts or using kettlebells/dumbbells for compound movements like dumbbell thrusters are considered more vigorous/level three exercises, says Burgau.

"Whether you're using a lighter weight in a high-intensity interval-style or working on max strength or power with heavier weight, there are a lot of ways to reach a vigorous level of high-intensity exercise," he says. "Biking and rowing in short intervals at max capacity or doing short sprints with little rest is another great way to reach this level and increase your max potential." (Related: What to Know About Training Volume If You're New to Lifting Weights)

So, at which level should you be exercising?

Try doing level three workouts twice a week, level two workouts twice a week, and a level one workout once a week if you want to have a well-rounded fitness routine, says Burgau. But it really does depend on your fitness goals and workout experience. (See: How Much Exercise You Need Totally Depends on Your Goals)

"If you're new to working out, you might have to build up to a point of reaching a level three intensity," says Burgau, adding that it's also important to listen to your body. (Related: Is It Possible to Do Too Much HIIT?)

"Your body will tell you if you're overdoing it and when rest is required," he says. "Training fatigue is a serious sign of overtraining. If your workouts are leading to decreased force production and emotional or sleep disturbances, it's time to scale back. It's important to understand that everyone responds differently to exercise, especially vigorous exercise." (Related: 9 Reasons to Skip Your Workout... Sometimes)

Looking for other ways to gauge the intensity of your workout? Here's how to use heart rate zones to train for max exercise benefits.

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