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Do you ever get the feeling you’re not pushing yourself hard enough in the gym? Or, on the flip side, do you see other people sweating and groaning while you just kind of go through the motions? Let’s talk about how hard your workouts should be, and what to change if your current routine isn’t in the right zone.

Most of your cardio should be easy

Let’s talk about cardio first. Whether you’re jogging or cycling or doing dance cardio videos, you build your aerobic base with plenty of miles (or minutes) of easy-to-medium work. In terms of heart rate zones, that would be a zone 2 or sometimes 3 out of 5.

Or to put it another way: If there’s a jogger who cruises around your neighborhood every morning, smile on their face, making a fast pace look easy, you may compare yourself unfavorably to them. “If I were running that fast, I’d be gasping for air and then I would die,” you might think. But the secret is that if you took up a morning jogging habit, you would want to aim for their effort level, not their speed.

Intervals and HIIT cardio should be medium to hard

There is, of course, a time and a place for intensity. If you’re doing high intensity interval training (HIIT), or really any type of interval training, the whole idea is that the rests allow you to go harder when it’s work time.

How hard? Well, that depends on the workout, but you can use the recoveries as your guide. If you’re doing 1 minute hard/1 minute easy, you should be recovered enough by the end of the easy minute that you’re ready for another hard minute.

If you find yourself unable to go again at the end of the rest, or quitting the workout early, you went too hard during the intervals. On the other hand, if the hard and easy intervals feel relatively similar to you, you may not be pushing hard enough. Pay attention to the intended effort level. Sometimes you’re supposed to collapse in a puddle by the end of the workout, but sometimes you’re supposed to finish feeling like you could have gone a few more rounds.

Compound lifts require attention to more than just intensity

If you’re doing squats or deadlifts, your body has a lot to manage all at once. You’re using your muscles to move the weight, but you’re also coordinating them to all move together with good timing and keep appropriate positioning to do the lift correctly. Occasionally you might take these to your top level of intensity, for example to see how much you can lift as a one-rep max, but that’s not going to be your everyday training.

A good program is going to give you an assignment for the day that you can complete without endangering yourself and without fatiguing yourself too much for the rest of the week. Pay attention to what it gives you! And if you find yourself struggling on every lift every workout, consider that it may not be the right program for you.

Lighter lifts may need to go to failure

On the other hand, isolation lifts (ones that work one or just a few muscles, like a bicep curl) can be taken closer to failure. The same goes for anything where you need a lot of reps to hit failure: if you’re able to do sets of 20 pushups or more, you need those last few hard reps to recruit all your muscle fibers. You can’t just do 10 and move on.

That said, you still have to be realistic. I’ve often heard beginners complain that they can’t “push themselves” in the gym. They stop being able to lift the weight, or do the last few reps of pushups, and they wonder what’s wrong. Well, if you get to the point where you literally can’t do any more, you’ve definitely hit failure. There’s nowhere else to go.

WODs and conditioning require that you scale or pace yourself

If you’re doing a workout that asks you to do a bunch of hard exercises and time yourself—like a tough Crossfit WOD (workout of the day)—you’re definitely supposed to to push yourself hard. But it’s still important to pace yourself.

In Crossfit, there’s a concept of scaling. If you’re supposed to get through Grace (30 clean and jerks) in a few minutes, you’re doing the workout wrong if you load up 95 pounds on the bar and take 15 minutes to get through it. Better to respect the intention of the workout, and choose a weight that lets you complete the workout quickly.

Remember, the idea of these workouts is to get to the end feeling like you’re spent, not to reach that point 30 seconds in.

Hard is never the actual goal

Even when a workout is difficult, and is supposed to be difficult, suffering is not the end goal. A hard conditioning workout is supposed to increase your stamina; a heavy strength workout is supposed to make you stronger. If the workout is hard or unpleasant, that is a side effect of the main goal.

So when you ask if you’re working hard enough, you need to know whether you’re working hard enough to get the appropriate adaptations. Some workouts need to be intense, and yeah, they might suck. Some need to be easy enough that you can do them for a long time. When in doubt, think back to why you are doing the workout, and make sure your effort matches the prescription.

   



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