“My trainer really kicked my ass today!”
“Man, that workout left me in a puddle of my own sweat!”
“I almost puked at the end of my training session!”
“I could barely walk to my car!”
"I don’t train, I go to war!”
“I had to lay on the couch for the rest of the day after my workout.”
“It’s Friday and my legs are still sore from Monday's leg day. It was a great workout!”
Can you relate to any of these comments? Do you find yourself searching for one or more of these outcomes when you train? I hate to break it to you, but if you judge your workout’s effectiveness by how tired, sweaty, out of breath, nauseous, sore or fatigued it makes you, you’re not going to make much progress. Sure, training hard is very important, and many everyday gym goers don’t train hard enough. But there’s a difference between training hard with intent and just training as hard as possible until you can’t function properly.
This isn't just a trainee problem either. Many trainers, especially less experienced ones, will boast about how grueling their clients' training sessions are. Their goal is to make you feel like you worked hard, because this feeling tends to keep clients coming back (in the short term, at least). Many people who train on their own also wear the brutality of their workouts as a badge of honor. There’s an unfortunate notion (admittedly, it’s getting better) that judging the effectiveness of your workouts by the above factors is still the gold standard.
In this article, I’m going to explain some common ways type-A, high-achieving individuals incorrectly judge their workouts, along with the metrics you should utilize to judge the effectiveness of your workouts and overall program. If you’re someone who uses one or more of the above factors to judge your program, don’t feel bad, you’re not alone. If it’s working for you (meaning you’re consistently getting stronger, healthier, feeling better, and looking forward to your training sessions), please continue. But if (or should I say, since) it’s not working, continue reading to find out how to use training to enhance your life, make you stronger, gain confidence, and improve your health in a sustainable, long lasting way.
The four main points I'm going to emphasize are:
#1- Judging your workouts based on feeling fatigued, nauseous, or extremely out of breath
#2- Judging your workouts based on how much you sweat
#3- Judging your workouts by how sore you are the next day or several days
#4- Judging your workouts by how little you’re able to accomplish the rest of the day
#1- Fatigued, Nauseous, Out of Breath
First thing’s first, all fatigue is not created equal. There’s a difference between muscle fatigue from effective programming and overall systemic fatigue from throwing the kitchen sink at yourself, not resting between sets, trying to mix cardio with strength training, or just doing too much volume (hard sets per session). Towards the end of a set, you’ll want to feel fatigue building up in the muscle(s) you’re targeting. Depending on which movement you’re doing, you mey be out of breath as well. This is not a bad thing. But if you’re in the gym to improve your physique, speed up your metabolism, get healthier, and feel better (the reasons most people train), this fatigue should be gone (or at least close to it) before you start your next set. Many people will do some form of circuit training where they rest minimally between sets and continue to do exercise after exercise. They turn their strength training session into cardio. We call this “cardio with weights”. Strength training and cardio send vastly different signals to your body, and in most cases for most people, should be separated (you can do them in the same workout, but do your lifting, then do your cardio).
But feeling constantly out of breath, overly fatigued fatigued or in extreme cases, nauseous, is not going to get you the results you’re looking for. Extreme fatigue throughout an entire training session won’t allow you to focus on pushing your sets as hard as is required for growth. If you’re out of breath going into a set of heavy squats, not only will the quality of that set be lower, but you’re also putting yourself at risk of injury. If you feel this way throughout your session, here are some things to consider:
-For strength gains and muscle growth, you’ll need to be as fresh as possible going into each set. If you’re doing 4 sets of 10 and you need to take 20 lbs off the bar each set to accomplish 10 reps, you’re not resting long enough.
-If your strength training feels like cardio, you’re not resting long enough.
-If you’re feeling nauseous during or after a strength training or cardio workout, you went too hard. Your body is overstressed, and will need extra time to recover back to baseline (and likely won’t go past your previous baseline, which is what causes gains)
-If you’re constantly out of breath throughout a strength training session (it’s ok to be out of breath for a minute or so after a hard set), you’re not actually strength training.
Again, there's a time and place for fatigue. And I’m not saying to half-ass your training. But follow the principles of strength training, don’t do too much junk volume, and ensure you’re resting between sets.
The next training session gauging criteria to avoid is how much you sweat during a training session. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with sweating, and sometimes you may sweat a lot. But there are many factors that go into how much one sweats, to include:
-Genetics: some people naturally sweat more than others
-Temperature: if you’re training in a garage in August, you’ll sweat more than training in that same garage in January.
-Humidity: The more humid it is, the more you’ll visibly perspire. Dry heat still leads to just as much (or more) sweating, but more of it evaporates from your skin than in humid environments, hence my use of the word “visibly”.
-Stimulants (like pre workout) and certain medications: Certain things you take daily or on the day of your training session can make you sweat more than you normally would.
-Alcohol: If you drank alcohol the day prior or regularaly drink alcohol, there’s a good chance you’ll sweat more overall, especially during a workout. Sweating is one of your body’s detox mechanisms.
- Workout modality: If you’re doing an hour of cardio, you’ll sweat more than you would if you’re doing an arms and shoulders session. Usually, the more muscles you’re working, the more you’ll sweat. For example, most people sweat more on leg day than an upper body day because it’s a lot more demanding.
Here’s the reality. I sweat walking to my mailbox (about 50 ft from my front door) in the summer. I sweat a ton when I sit in the sauna. I also sweat when I train, sometimes more than others. There are many causes of sweat, and it’s great to sweat when you train. But the effectiveness of your workout should not be judged by how much or how little you perspire.
Soreness is part of the process, and feeling a little bit of it the day after your session is usually a good thing. But there are many causes of soreness, to include:
- Movements that overload the stretched position of a muscle (think of a cable fly or a stiff legged deadlift)
- Movements with slow eccentrics (lowering portion) think of lowering a squat or bicep curl over 4-6 seconds for multiple reps and sets
- Detrained or untrained muscles will get sore. If you’ve never trained before or have taken a long time off from training, you’ll probably experience soreness early on in the program. Additionally, if you train a muscle group hard only once a week (e.g. leg day, arm day, chest day etc.) you’ll probably experience more soreness in those muscles than if you’d trained them with the same volume, but spread over 2-3 sessions.
- Novelty can also cause soreness. If you do a new exercise or one you haven’t done in a long time, expect to be sore the following day or two.
-Going too hard. Training with too much volume and/or intensity will result in soreness. If you train consistently and still get really sore, this is an indication that you may need to dial it back.
-Poor recovery. Sleep and nutrition play a significant role in soreness. A hard, well intended training session is great, but if you're not sleeping and fueling yourself properly, you'll likely experience more soreness.
- Blunt trauma. If I punched myself in the quads over and over again, I'd be sore the next day. Does that mean I got a good workout?
If you’re really sore (e.g. it’s painful to the touch or significantly restricts movement), or sore for multiple days, this indicates you’ve gone too hard. Seeking extreme soreness is not intelligent if you want to make progress. Extreme soreness creates too high of a recovery demand for both your muscles and your nervous system, and instead of your body adapting and getting stronger, it’s essentially holding on to dear life and just trying to get back to baseline. Conversely, zero soreness whatsoever is indicative that you may need to train a bit harder. A rule of thumb I like to use is that if you can search for and find soreness a day after training a given muscle (e.g. you feel a little soreness when you stretch your chest muscles the day after a push workout), you’ve trained with appropriate intensity. If you’re training each muscle group twice per week, it’s acceptable to be a bit sore for 1-2 days. If training it more often, you’ll want to reduce volume and/or intensity for each individual session so that you can train that muscle group again in 48 hours.
One thing to keep in mind is that there’s a difference between soreness in a muscle belly, and soft tissue/joint soreness. If your joints (shoulders, knees, elbows are common) are sore the day or two after training, your exercise selection, execution, volume and/or intensity should be manipulated in order to avoid this. Joint soreness is not a favorable adaptation from strength training, and in fact, your joints should feel better over time.
#4- Post Gym Blues
The final assessment criteria to avoid is how fatigued you feel for the rest of the day after your workout. Many people will train in a way that makes them want to camp out on the couch for the rest of the day. The problem with this is that most people (athletes and competitors aside) are training to enhance their life, not detract from it. If your training leaves you unable to enjoy the rest of the day's activities because you're so tired, banged up, sore or dehydrated, is it really enhancing your life? Training is a stressor, and when done in the appropriate doses and with the right intensity, this stress is good, because your body adapts to it and progresses over time. Your hormones work in your favor, your energy levels increase, your mood is more stable, and you’re able to enjoy life’s daily activities. When you train too hard, this stressor is not a good thing. Your body is just fighting to get back to baseline. Doing this too often can be detrimental to your hormones, mood, mental clarity, and overall quality of life.
As a general rule of thumb, you should leave the gym feeling better than when you entered the gym. Not only that, but you should feel more energized throughout the rest of the day than you would’ve if you’d skipped training. It’s not the end of the world to occasionally go a bit too hard to test your mental fortitude, but it shouldn’t be the norm. If your workouts leave you struggling through the rest of the day more often than about once every couple of months, you’re going harder than you should be if you want to actually make progress (both in the gym and with your health).
But What if I Enjoy These Feelings?
This is a tough one, because some people enjoy (and may even be addicted to) workouts that leave them on the floor in a puddle of their own sweat, gasping for air. They feel like they need to leave it all on the gym floor, and leave the gym feeling like they did everything they possibly could have in order to get more fit. If this is you, I get it. I used to train like this (for years on end), but now I’ve learned that it’s not conducive to progress. Training like this can lead to many negative outcomes, including:
-Fatigue and brain fog
-Unhealthy obsession with training
People who train like this tend to have an all or nothing approach, where they’re “dialed in” for weeks or months at a time, and then they reach a breaking point (caused by one or a combination of the above factors) where they don’t train for weeks or months at a time. This “on the wagon, off the wagon” approach is not ideal for long term health and fitness, not to mention your relationship with fitness. It’s far better to train 2-3x a week and leave the gym feeling great than it is to crush yourself 6-7 days a week but only be able to sustain it for a few months at a time. Usually, once you dial it back and start to see real progress, it becomes easier to switch your mentality towards your training.
As a final attempt to drive this point home, here's a facetious analogy I like to use:
If the above metrics were effective gauges of a good workout, I'd switch my workout program to sitting in a sauna, hyperventilating, punching myself over and over again in the legs, and staying up all night.
We all know this isn't a good workout, but it would leave me sweaty, out of breath, sore and fatigued.
Metrics To Use to Assess Your Workouts
Now that we’ve learned how not to judge the effectiveness of your workouts, let’s talk about the criteria you can and should use. The million dollar question you should ask yourself after each training session (as you leave the gym, along with 2-3 hours post training) is:
Do I feel better now than I did before I trained?
If the answer is yes, you didn’t go too hard. If you feel significantly worse, you likely went too hard. It’s important to ask yourself later in the day and not just as you leave the gym because sometimes a hard, grueling workout can release dopamine and endorphins and make us feel really good temporarily. If you’ve gone too hard, though, this feeling will go away later in the day, which may result in feeling down, both physically and mentally.
The other way to judge your program on more of a macro level is simply whether or not you’re consistently making progress. You can ask yourself these questions every week or 2:
Are you getting stronger week to week, month to month?
Are you able to increase your work output over time?
Do you feel better and better outside the gym as weeks go by?
Are you less sore after several weeks of training than you were in the first couple of weeks?
Do your joints feel better now than they did before?
If so, you’re doing the appropriate amount of training. If not, you’re doing too much or too little. It may take some time to find the happy medium where you’re training hard, but not too hard, and getting great results. If you don’t know what this feels like, I suggest trying a program or hiring a coach to give you some direction. The terminator training kickstart program is a great option, but there are plenty more out there!
Wrapping It Up
Training can be a tough nut to crack. In most areas of life, working harder and doing more is the answer for success and continued progress. But because training is a physical and mental stressor that causes temporary fatigue and a loss in performance that must be recovered from before you train again, more/harder work isn’t always the answer.
Hopefully this article has made you think a little bit about your own training. Going too hard isn’t something the majority of people have to worry about. But It’s something I see at least a handful of people doing every time I go to the gym. It can be a really tough habit to break, but I assure you, if you follow the criteria suggested in this article, you’re going to make more progress, feel better outside the gym, and look forward to training more than you currently do.
Thank you for reading! Can you relate to this article? How long did it take you to realize that crushing yourself day after day isn’t the answer for best results? Let me know in the comments below!