How To Know If A Workout Is Effective

Most people are exercising with a specific goal in mind.

For some their goal may be weight loss.

Others may be exercising for an athletic event.

Some exercise as a way of stress relief.

But how do you know if a workout is effective in helping you achieve a goal?

For most people, an effective workout is one that leaves you depleted mentally and physically, sore, and dripping in sweat.

The no pain no gain mentality is pervasive in today’s world and the message we get from social media is a highlight showing everyone doing extraordinarily hard workouts.

The fact of the matter is even the best athletes in the world don’t train that hard every day. They don’t even do a workout at that intensity once a week, once a month, or in many cases once every 6 months.

Take for example athletes who compete in the Olympics. They train for 4 years for a handful of competitions where they lay everything out there and give it all they got. Yet as an average person just looking to be healthy, or run a 5K for fun a few times a year, we have in our mind that when we exercise we need to treat it like an Olympic competition every time. In reality if you are exercising at max intensity every time you are actually getting a worse workout than if you took it easy.

Why is that?

Let’s look at an example.

Sally decides she wants to use a local 5K as motivation to help her to start working out. She used to run track in high school and college, but now at 36, it’s been quite a long time since she has laced up her running shoes….in fact she doesn’t even own any running shoes.

First things first, she goes to the local running store and gets fitted for some nice new shoes and buys some new workout clothes.

Now that she has her equipment she can go train for her race.

She is confident that she can get in good enough shape over the next 3 months by running 3 days a week, and she can fit that into her busy schedule as a working mother of two young kids. She plans on running first thing in the morning on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. On Friday she is going to run with a friend who she has convinced to run the race with her.

When Monday rolls around, her alarm goes off, and she gets up and puts on her new clothes and shoes and heads out the door. She decided she is just going to run a mile to start with. She gets about a ¼ mile in and she wants to turn around and go back. She is out of breath and ready to pass out. By ½ mile she decides it’s too much and walks the rest.

She is not defeated though, she knows she hasn’t done this in a long time and she needs to get fitter….she is motivated as hell!

Wednesday and Friday roll around with similar results.

When the weekend comes, she feels like she got hit by a Mac Truck and is all but useless. She is tired because she hasn’t slept well due to the soreness from the runs. Her kids want her to play tag with them outside but she is barely able to walk without wincing in pain….she is popping Advil like candy. She is also starving, partially because she is so tired, and partially because she is not used to expending this much energy.

Monday comes and she is still sore, but she gets up and tries to run the mile again with similar results.

This pattern continues for a few weeks but a month in she still can’t run a mile and she has started skipping one workout a week because now she has developed shin splints. Friday’s runs are even worse because her friend is more fit and runs at a faster pace.

She is ready to give up!

This pattern is all too common, and it’s not specific to running. I see the same thing happen with someone getting into resistance training, or CrossFit, spin, yoga, whatever…they do too much, too soon, at too high of an intensity!

No matter your experience or your goal for exercise you should be looking to do the bare minimum to elicit the change you are looking for.

For Sally, instead of running the mile from week one, she would have been better off walking it! It seems lame, and it’s not sexy, but it is more than enough for someone like her.

She hasn’t run in years, maybe even decades. Do you think going out and pounding the pavement for a mile is a smart thing to do?


Walking would have been plenty to start. After a week or two of that, try running for a minute and then walking for a minute. After a week or two of that try running for 2 minutes and walking for a minute.

Same can be said for resistance training. If you haven’t lifted weights for a long time don’t try to do a 5 day a week bodybuilding split to start out. Two to three days a week of resistance training that works your whole body each time is more than enough. Just 4 exercises for 2 sets for the first few weeks is really all you need. I guarantee you that you will be sore after day 1, but not sore to the point that you won’t be able to get out of the chair for the rest of the week.

While I would love that we could just intuitively know how hard to push during exercise, it takes quite a bit of practice and even after years of training I myself can sometimes overdo it.

Here are some general rules to follow.

The first thing to keep in mind is that you should not be going into any workout giving it your all…ever!

The other piece of advice I would give you is when you are going through a workout ask yourself this….

“Can I repeat this workout tomorrow at this same intensity?”

If the answer is no, scale back, you are going too hard!!!

Someone who can workout at a moderate intensity 3-4 times a week is going to be much better off than someone who goes all out for one workout and then needs 3 days off and then works out again one more time that week.

Finally don’t be afraid to scale back the workout if you need to. Your body is different from day to day. Just because you were able to complete a workout last week and feel fine doesn’t mean the next week you can repeat that performance. Your sleep, stress, food, additional training, will all impact your workout performance. Unfortunately none of those factors are perfectly consistent from week to week, so your performance and ability to handle a workout may change from day to day and week to week. If a workout feels like too much even though you did the same workout last week, scale it back to a manageable intensity for that day.

An effective workout is one that provides enough stimulus to elicit the desired change. Doing more does not mean the change will happen faster or you will get better results. Instead it might actually (and most likely will be) worse in the long run. Remember we evolved doing the bare minimum to survive, we were not over-achievers.

When it comes to physical activity, we wanted to minimize the energy expended so we had energy left over in case we had to run from a tiger later in the day or tomorrow. If we expended too much energy, inhibiting our ability to move efficiently later on, it would make it much harder to evade or fight off the tiger that might come later in the day or the next day. It might be useful to keep this in mind when you head into your workouts as well. Do enough so you feel challenged, but don’t go to the point if you had to run, move, or jump to save your own life later on it would be damn near impossible.

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