Working hard or hardly working? It’s not just a hilarious dad joke.
When talking to people about any exercise they’ve done in the past, I often hear one of these two complaints:
1. It was too hard and I had to stop (or I got hurt).
2. It was too easy; I have to do more to get results.
There’s a sweet spot somewhere in the middle, and I have a suggestion on how to get there.
What Counts as a Workout?
It’s the time of year where it seems like, no matter what day or time it is, if you go outside, you hear someone mowing their lawn.
Take a walk and you see people pulling weeds, trimming bushes, and generally being more active outdoors.
Does any of that count as a workout?
For simplicity’s sake, today the answer is no. (We gave a more nuanced answer in the blog “Should You Workout After an Active Day?”)
Being active can be a part of accomplishing certain goals, but it’s not the same as a workout program designed with built-in progressions, intentionally moving you toward your goal.
As I talk about exercise, and whether you’re putting enough effort into it, know that I’m talking about an actual workout, and not just any random physical activity.
A common misconception is that if your workout doesn’t FEEL hard, you didn’t accomplish anything. The problem with this type of thinking is that it doesn’t take your individuality into consideration.
Two people, in the exact same physical condition, doing the exact same workout, might have completely opposite perspectives on the difficulty of the exercise.
On top of that, your goals can dictate which aspect of your workout should be difficult. For instance, if your goal is to get stronger, the specific way your workout taxes you will feel different from the demands placed on your body if your goal is to increase cardio capacity.
Another thing to consider is that if you push yourself to the limit every single time, you might improve for awhile, but eventually you’ll plateau (or your progress may even decline). A well thought out exercise program will vary the intensity over time.
Because of all of these things, it’s far too simplistic to say that every workout should be hard.
For every person who makes the mistake of trying to kill themselves at each workout, there’s another person at the gym just going through the motions.
If you aren’t used to exerting yourself physically, what you’re doing might FEEL difficult, but you could be limiting yourself, not realizing you have a lot more to give.
Or it could just be your personality — some people have a lower threshold for what feels tough.
In the beginning, this isn’t a terrible mistake. When you’re new to exercise, it doesn’t take much to make progress. For this reason, I always recommend starting any new exercise conservatively.
Challenge yourself in some way, but leave the gym feeling energized, not worn down.
That said, if you never ramp up your efforts, you’ll only get so far before the results slow down and eventually stop altogether.
The Sweet Spot
Working out too hard or too easy both have their pitfalls, but starting conservatively gives you somewhere to go. Even if you’re being overly cautious, you can aim to improve little by little, until you eventually find your sweet spot.
But you have to keep track of your workouts.
Results come too slowly to track it mentally. You can’t expect to remember every detail of the workout you did on Tuesday, six weeks ago.
You could still make progress, but it’s not guaranteed, and it won’t be optimal. And there’s no information to help you determine what to work on.
So keep notes, not only on what you did, but on how you felt when you did it. It’ll keep you honest.
If you’re the type of person who overdoes it, you can look back and see whether you really need to keep pushing, or if you should stay where you’re at for awhile.
Of if you tend to take it too easy, you’ll have a better idea of where to challenge yourself more.
Working hard or hardly working are subjective terms. As long as you keep track of your workouts, and see improvements over time, you’re working hard enough for you, and that’s what counts.