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Training Advice for Women

6 Ways To Determine If Your Workout Is Effective

You’ve gone to the gym, lifted some weights, maybe even did some cardio and broke a sweat. But was your workout effective? Here are 6 ways to know.

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1. True or False: Effort and intensity are the same.

Answer: False.

Probably your first inclination is to say yes, they are different words that mean the same thing. However, in truth, intensity is defined as the power output generated by an athlete during exercise, while effort is the perceived experience of the athlete doing the exercise or sport. (See RPE in No. 2!) So if you jump higher or sprint faster, your intensity — power output — increases and can be accurately and specifically gauged by equipment such as a stopwatch or tape measure. But if the athlete legitimately feels like she is giving 100 percent effort but her sprint time is four seconds slower than the previous week, her effort might feel the same even though her intensity is off.

2. True or False: The RPE scale is outdated as a measure of effort.

Answer: False.

While many people have hopped on the heart-rate-training bandwagon, there is still an application for the RPE (rate of perceived exertion) scale, in which you gauge your level of effort from 1 to 10 with 1 being couch surfing and 10 being sprinting toward (or away from, depending) Justin Bieber.

Just like the weather changes daily, so does your body, mood, health and energy level, and the same workout that you breezed through one day might annihilate you the next. RPE helps you determine an appropriate effort for you on a given day and could even be a better gauge than heart rate if you’re stressed, sick or sleep deprived: All these conditions can cause an elevated heart rate that could skew your readings.

“Also, if you sweat a lot, the heart rate can rise as you lose blood volume,” says Steven Loy, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Kinesiology at California State University, Northridge. This volume loss means an increase in your heart rate as your body tries to maintain blood pressure, leading to a false reading on your monitor and an inaccurate gauge of effort.

All that being said, you should not be working at a RPE of 6 every day. Not only will you die of boredom, but your body also will get used to this level of effort and will stop progressing. Vary your RPE from day-to-day to keep things interesting and ensure lasting results.

3. True or False: If you’re not sweating, you’re not working hard enough.

Answer: False.

Some people sweat standing still; others are dry as a desert even when sitting in a sauna. So is sweat an effective measure of effort? Meh, not really.

“Sweat rate can be affected by many things in the environment, irrespective of the intensity you are working at,” Loy says. “It’s a passive process to keep you from getting overheated.” And because not everyone operates at the same temperature, whether or not you sweat as a result of your workout has little to do with the intensity you put in.

But just because you don’t “glow” when you train doesn’t give you a license to slack off. You should still be giving your workouts 100 percent, even if you leave as dry and dainty as when you walked in.

4. True or False: High-intensity workouts burn more fat than steady-state workouts.

Answer: True.

But this is not to say that steady-state cardio does not burn fat and calories — it does. For example, a 30-minute jog on a treadmill burns a couple hundred calories during the jog itself, but once that 30 minutes is over, so is the burn; the workout does not create a lasting impression on your body. However, a 20-minute HIIT workout might burn fewer calories during the 20 minutes itself, but it creates a metabolic disturbance that requires your body to burn energy in the hours and even days following, as it repairs itself and tries to recover. Both protocols should be implemented in a well-rounded training program.

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5. True or False: Training longer is always better.

Answer: Both.

It depends on your goals. If you’re working your way up to running a marathon, then yes, training longer is going to strengthen your cardio capacity and bolster your endurance. But if your goal is not to hit the 26.2 mile mark, then training longer than an hour is probably wearing you down more than it is building you up, and you could be at risk for overtraining and injury. (Either that or you’re working your mouth more than your muscles while at the gym.)

Keep your workouts to 60 minutes or shorter unless you’re specifically working toward an endurance or distance goal, and go for intensity rather than longevity when lifting.

6. True or False: If you’re not sore, you didn’t put in enough effort.

Answer: It depends.

There are varying degrees of muscular soreness, and while one indicates DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), which is associated with a good workout, prolonged pain likely indicates an injury.

Every time you train, you create micro-trauma in the fibers in your muscles, and as they recover, they adapt by growing stronger and multiplying. During this process, you’ll feel sore and perhaps a little tight — this is normal and should last a couple of days, maybe three if you really killed it. (Contrarily, if you do a workout and feel nothing the next day, then it’s time to step up the intensity in order to elicit change.)

However, if you have pain in a muscle or joint that lasts a week or more, it could indicate an injury such as a strain, sprain, tear or worse. Lay off training that area for a few weeks and treat with RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation) and see if it doesn’t remedy itself. If you’re still experiencing pain, see your doc right away.

Finally, not every workout is designed to make you sore. Certain types of yoga, for instance, can be healing and calming, and if you’re sore at the end of a slow-flow class, you were probably not following directions (ohm …).