What Is Absolute Intensity and Relative Intensity

Exercise intensity is an essential training variable. Modifying it helps prevent overtraining and also ensures you’re working hard enough.

Absolute and relative exercise intensity are often confused. But once you get them straight and apply them correctly to your workouts, your results will take off like a Superman leaping to Louis Lane’s rescue.

Absolute Exercise Intensity

Absolute intensity is the amount of weight based off your 1RM. It is expressed as a percent of your 1RM.

So an absolute intensity of 80% means that you are lifting 80% of the weight that you can lift for one rep.

Absolute intensity is always based off your 1RM.

Relative Exercise Intensity

Relative intensity refers to the amount of weight used based on your max at that specific rep scheme.

Relative intensity needs two numbers:

  1. Your max weight for a specific rep. [For example… What’s the maximum amount of weight you can lift for 10 reps.]
  2. The intensity or how close to failure your want to go. [Usually expressed as a percentage]

The intensity at a specific rep range is your Relative Exercise Intensity.

Absolute Intensity and Relative Intensity Table

The Relative Intensity Tables below tell you how much weight to use to reach a specific intensity based on a percentage. A little math is needed. But stick with me. It’s easy. The Intensity Table makes it so simple.

RPE Table

The RI Table above is for reps 11-20. Downloadable Relative Intensity Tables are at the bottom of the page.

To make this clear, let’s look at an example.

Imagine that we’re working together. Your bench press 1RM is 315 pounds and you’re on a tough macro-cycle this week working at a moderate plus intensity hitting 12 reps.

Looking at the table above you see that the yellow blocks contain your moderate intensity values.

Relative Intensity Table

Relative intensity of 85 –  87.5%

Looking at the Exercise Relative Intensity column we see that working in the moderate plus block has a Relative intensity of 85 –  87.5%.

Then, looking to the right on the Intensity Table move over until you’re in the the 12 rep column. It says that the absolute intensity is 57-59%.

So, for your set of 12 you’ll use 180 – 185 pounds.

Here’s the math behind it…

The Math:

  • Relative Intensity
    • If you know your 12RM, use relative intensity. (In this case it’s 211 and the relative intensity for a moderate plus set is 85-87.5%)
      • 211 x 87.5% = 184.6 (185)
      • 211 x 85% = 179.35 (180)
  • Absolute Intensity
    • If you don’t know your 12RM but know your 1RM it’s easier to use absolute intensity. (For this example you 1RM is 315 and the absolute intensity range for a moderate plus set is between 57% and 59%)
      • 315 x 59% = 185.85 (186)
      • 315 x 57% = 179.55 (180)

absolute and relative intensity calculations

The RI Table above is for reps 11-20. Downloadable Following reps and effort give absolute intensity.

Chances are that you’re not using fractional weights so your weight gets rounded to nearest 5 pound increment. So, for an appropriate Exercise Intensity use between 180 and 185 pounds.

Note: Use the 1RM Table to easily find your 1RM or your rep max.

For this example you the 300-400 pound 1RM table to find your rep maxes.


I use relative intensity to plan workouts and absolute intensity to do my weight calculations.

Here’s a good video explaining how to use relative and absolute intensity in a strength portion of your workout…

Max Strength Programing Using Relative and Absolute Intensity

This table works well along side the RPE scale.

Using 1RM to Max Table

This one rep max table is a handy reference.

It tells you what percentage of your 1RM you’e working at a given rep. Or how many reps you can expect at a specific percentage of your 1RM.

Since everyone is built just a little different the relationship between 1RM and number of reps at a given percentage don’t align perfectly.

The standard formula is 3% per rep. A 2 RM is 97% of a 1RM. A 5 RM is 88% of your 1 RM. But the NSCA had done lots of research and found a slightly different relationship. So I included their reps to 1RN to percentage values.

Click 1RM Table for large version. One rep max table show what percentage of 1RM you can hit for specific number of reps.


Relative And Absolute Intensity Tables


(and print out)

Cover photo by Anastase Maragos from Unsplash

FREE 5-Day Email Course

Look like an athlete without giving up your favorite foods or living in the gym.