A few days ago I came across an ad that promoted a piece of clothing designed to make you sweat (excessively). Its promise: help you slim down by “melting” belly fat as a result of sweating up to three times as much, without exercising more or paying attention to diet.
Now, this made me feel extremely sad, to be honest.
Because the first thing that popped into my mind was that while this claim is clearly total b*llsh*t, the fact that these products are being made, promoted and undoubtedly sold, means that people actually believe this stuff.
Instead, people should get a fair chance at improving their health, fitness and body composition if they wish to, which means they should be informed about what it means to get closer to their goals, how they should track them, and
That’s why I thought I’d discuss a few common misconceptions about what it looks like to have an “effective workout” or “make progress” on your goals: why are these not good indicators of physical progress, what purpose do they actually serve, and what indicators should you pay attention to while assessing your true progress?
Many people believe that if you’ve been sweating a lot during your workout session, this means that you must’ve had an effective workout.
All sweat is, is a way to cool down your body by releasing water from your body, which in turn evaporates. This happens during exercise, because generally your body heats up, but also when you are, for instance, in a sauna or when you eat spicy food.
If you’ve ever been to an area with a warm, humid climate, you’ll know that you’ll start sweating even without doing anything. At the same time, you may be working extremely hard in a cold environment, and not sweat at all.
Soreness, like sweating, is not necessarily an indicator of an effective workout. Soreness of muscles is caused by tiny tears in your muscle (which is required to make them stronger).
While some soreness after an intense workout is acceptable, you should not be sore for days on end after every single workout. This is probably just a sign that your body is not recovering optimally and you’re either working out too much/too intensely, or not optimizing recovery in terms of nutrition, bloodflow (e.g. active recovery like walking), etc.
I notice that when I work out more frequently, and don’t take it too far, I don’t really get sore anymore while at the same time making the best progress.
Muscle soreness is most likely to occur when you haven’t been training in a while or when you’re doing something very different from what you’re used to. It takes your body time to adapt to its new requirements, which is why you get sore. That is also why, like I said, soreness may start to reduce significantly when you’ve gotten used to a workout routine.
And that’s not a bad thing, as long as you challenge yourself: it just means you’re recovering well from your training and can therefore train properly the next time, too. If something works for you, don’t be too anxious to change it.
Sure, some variety in your training is probably a good idea, but don’t switch it up every week or even every training session. You’ll want to stick to a few effective, basic exercises in order to track progress. Of course, if you’re doing some of the same exercises each week, say squats, bench press and deadlifts, you can vary a little more in your other (accessory) exercises if that’s what you prefer.
The one thing that soreness can be an indicator of, however, is the specific muscles that you’ve been targeting. So, for instance, if you’re trying to work your glutes by doing squats, and that’s where you get sore, you’re effectively targeting that muscle. But, if you get sore everywhere else but there, it might mean that you need to either change your form during the exercise, or find an exercise better suited to your goals.
Other things that may influence muscle soreness, are properly warming up before a workout (which you should!), stretching afterwards, using saunas, and doing some active recovery during rest time (like walking instead of just being sedentary).
Although measuring body weight is the way most people probably track their fitness progress, you should take the numbers on the scale with a grain of salt.
Especially when overweight or obese, it’s understandable that people pay a lot of attention to the weight on the scale, and weight certainly is related to health to some degree. However, it’s influenced by many factors.
While you’ll initially lose weight, as you start to exercise and get stronger, you may notice that your weight loss rate will slow down or stop at some point. Eventually, it may even start to increase again.
This is not because you’re becoming less fit again, on the contrary: you’ve probably been building muscle, which is causing the gain in weight. Muscle is heavier than fat when compared for volume. In other words, you can be ‘thinner’ and weight more at the same time, if you have managed to substitute muscle for fat.
Additionally, your weight fluctuates as a result of sodium (salt) intake, inflammation, your period, whether you’ve gone to the bathroom or not, etc. That’s why weighing yourself every single day is not the most reliable method for tracking weight loss in the long run, anyway.
What does indicate a good workout, then?
If you can’t rely on sweatiness, soreness and weight, what should you pay attention to instead?
When it comes to cardiovascular fitness (endurance) or calorie expenditure, a good indicator is your heart rate. Increasing your heart rate means you’re burning more calories. As you get fitter in terms of cardiovascular health, you’ll be able to perform at the same level with a lower heart rate. In other words, you get better at the activity and don’t need as much energy to perform it (it feels easier).
Note: this does not mean that cardio is inherently a better workout for weight/fat loss! While you may burn more calories during an intense cardio/HIIT session, building muscle means you’ll be burning more calories during the other 23 hours of your day, even when sleeping. But that’s a topic for another day!
Strength and muscle building
Strength training progress can be measured by performance. If you notice you’re getting stronger over time (the same weights feel easier, you can do them for more repetitions, or you are able to increase the weight for the same amount of reps), it obviously means you’re getting stronger and it usually means you’re building muscle (although not exactly the same, the two go hand in hand).
If you’re frequently training within 1-2 reps shy of failure, you should be at a good place to build muscle. Failure is the point where you can no longer perform the exercise with proper form, so stop when the movement gets heavy and you’d be able to do 1-2 more repetitions. This ensures you’re making enough effort to progress over time.
I can do a blog post on the number of exercises, sets and repetitions I recommend if that’s something you’d like to read. Let me know in the comments!
For tracking body composition (the amount of fat versus fat-free mass (including muscle) in your body), instead of relying (only) on the scale, try taking progress pictures. Often, you can see visual progress over time, even if the scale is not moving much. You’ll be able to see you’re getting more toned and see your proportions balance out (e.g. less volume around the belly, firmer legs, chest and arms), something the scale doesn’t telll you.
Another indicator of progress is the ease with which you perform (heavy) bodyweight movements, such as push-ups and pull ups, since these get easier as you get stronger and lighter.
The key to making progress
The most important thing when it comes to progressing, is putting in the work. You need to put in the effort and challenge yourself, if you’ve done that, you’ve had an effective session. Not every single training needs to be your best so far, and there will be days that you’re a little bit weaker than the previous training.
Don’t forget that your health and fitness are a long term thing, and you nead to develop healthy habits for the long run in order to keep making progress.
Till next time!