When we drag ourselves out of bed for a workout, there’s one goal we all have in common: Get the most out of it. Unfortunately, research shows we’re not great at judging how hard we’re pushing ourselves during our sweat sessions. In fact, when left to our own devices, scientists discovered that we seriously underestimate just how hard we’re working. (Apparently that puddle of sweat you left behind isn’t always the best indicator!) So instead of continuing the guessing game, we went to the pros to get some surefire ways to determine if your workout is too easy. Follow their tricks so you’ll know when it’s time to step up your game.
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3 Signs You Need to Take Your Workout Up a Notch
Sign #1: Your heart rate isn’t that high.
We hate to break it to you, but when you think you’re exhausted and can’t give any more, you might be able to dig deeper. When we rely on perceived effort, or how we feel during workouts, we’re often overestimating how hard we’re working. In one study, when participants were told to work out at a “vigorous” effort, they wound up only getting their heart rate up to about 70 percent of their maximum heart rate. They should have been hitting 77 to 93 percent. (Not sure what levels you should be aiming for? Try this calculator.)
To push yourself harder, Chris and Heidi Powell, certified trainers and the husband-wife duo behind ABC’s Extreme Weight Loss, suggest using a heart rate monitor during cardio workouts. “It’s the most reliable indicator of your intensity and the zone in which you want to train in to achieve your goals,” they say. If you don’t have a monitor, no worries, you can measure it yourself, too. “Find your pulse, count the number of beats you get in six seconds, then add a zero,” says Heidi. So if you get 15 beats in six seconds, that equals an approximate heart rate of 150 BPM.
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Sign #2: You’re easily lifting more than 10 reps on the reg.
When incorporating strength training into your routine, your heart rate isn’t necessarily going to be an accurate indicator of workout difficulty. In fact, it may only increase slightly, depending on what type of workout you’re doing, the Powells say. “When it comes to strength training, it’s better to gauge by muscle fatigue and rep range. You may not experience a significant jump in heart rate but you’re still working hard.”
Try doing a reps test (like this one) once a month at the beginning of your workout. If you’re still familiarizing yourself with strength training, a 10-rep max test is a great way to gauge where you stand. That involves seeing how heavy you can lift while safely completing 10 reps with proper form. Whatever your chosen exercise is — bicep curls, squats or overhead presses — go on and do those 10 reps.
“If you can complete them with ease, it’s time to move up in weight,” says Heidi. “Or if you can complete them with only a little struggle during 8 to 10 reps, you can consider moving up in weight to continue challenging your body.” On the flip side, if you can’t finish all 10 with proper form, or it’s a serious struggle, continue working hard with that weight.
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Another great test that intermediate and advanced lifters can use is the one-rep max, which analyzes your absolute strength — or how much you’re able to lift just once. Adam Rosante, certified trainer and author of The 30-Second Body, suggests doing a deadlift, squat or bench press with a friend nearby, as going solo could lead to injury if your weight gets too heavy.
Start with a moderate amount of weight (not the heaviest you can handle) for your first lift. “Complete 6 reps, then rest for 3 to 5 minutes. Don’t cut your recovery time short, even if you feel ready to go again,” he says. Add more weight, perform 4 reps, and recover. Continue adding weight and lowering your reps — following a 6, 4, 3, 2, 1, 1, 1 model. “If you finish that last set and feel like you could go again with more weight, then you can go harder,” Rosante says. “Rest for 4 to 5 minutes, and then get after it.”
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Sign #3: You’re not out of breath during fitness tests.
If you haven’t done a fitness test since sixth grade, you’re not alone. “Adding various tests and challenges to your workouts is a great way to prove that you’re progressing and are ready to take things up a notch,” says Rosante.
But what tests should you do? In The 30-Second Body, Rosante outlines six basic moves for your test: tuck jumps, push-ups, pencil squats, three-point planks (here’s a refresher on plank form), standing mountain climbers (check out these other variations, too), and power thrusts. Perform each move for 60 seconds, trying to fit in as many reps as possible. (Again, make sure that form is on point throughout.) Rest 30 seconds between each, and jot down the difference in your number of reps between weeks one and three. If it’s the same (or even if your numbers increased), but you’re not out of breath, then you didn’t exactly push yourself to the limit. Try again and really go for it. Rosante suggests testing about every three weeks. You won’t stagnate and will be able to more accurately measure if it’s time for harder work.
Originally posted November 2015. Updated November 2016.