Are You Doing the Right Workouts?

Questions to Ask to Assess Your Workouts

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Starting an exercise program can be confusing, even with (or, maybe because of) the information out there telling us how to get started. We know we're supposed to do cardio, lift weights and stretch, but one question is much harder to answer: How do I know if I'm doing this right?

There's no perfect answer to this question because the answer is specific to you: Your goals, your fitness level and your expectations.

If that's the case and you don't have a trainer or other expert to help you out, how can you tell if you're doing it right?

There are a few questions you can ask yourself to find out if you're on the right track.

1. Am I Following the Basic Exercise Guidelines?

Thanks to organizations like the American College of Sports Medicine, we have some guidelines in place to give us a framework for our workouts. Now, do these fit everyone? No. Do you have to follow them exactly? No. How much exercise you need is different for everyone. However, you can compare your program with these basic guidelines to see where you stand.

Cardio Recommendations

  1. Frequency:
    • For Better Health or Beginners: At least 3 times a week
    • For Weight Loss or More Advanced Exercisers: 5-7 days a week
  2. Intensity:
    • For Better Health or Beginners: Moderate intensity - Moderate intensity is about a Level 5 on this Perceived Exertion Scale, 70-80% of your maximum heart rate (MHR) or at a level where you're working but you can still carry on a conversation.
    • For Weight Loss or More Advanced Exercisers – A variety of intensities that include:
      • High Intensity - Level 8-9 perceived exertion, 80-90% of your MHR or working at a level where you're breathless. Example: High intensity interval training (HIIT). Suggested schedule: 1-2 times a week.
      • Moderate Intensity - Level 5-6 perceived exertion, 70-80% of your MHR or working at a level where you're just out of your comfort zone but can still talk. Example: Cardio Medley Workout. Suggested schedule: 2-4 times a week.
      • Low Intensity - Level 3-5 perceived exertion, 60-70% of your MHR or working at a comfortable level. Example: A long, slow bike ride. Suggested schedule: 1-2 times a week.
  1. Duration:
    • For Better Health or Beginners: Working up to 30 minutes of continuous movement
    • For Weight Loss or More Advanced Exercisers – 30-60 minutes, depending on the intensity of your workouts. High intensity may be 20-30 minutes, moderate workouts, 30-60 minutes and low intensity, 60 or more minutes.

    Strength Training Recommendations

    1. Work All Muscle Groups – Your strength workouts should include exercises for the entire body, including: The lower body, chest, back, shoulders, biceps, triceps and abs
    2. Work Your Muscles 2-3 Nonconsecutive Days Each Week - How often you train will depend on the program you're following, but you want to avoid working the same muscle groups two days in a row. Below are a few examples of how to schedule common strength training programs:
    3. Sets and Reps
      • For Beginners – 1 set of 8-12 reps
      • For Intermediate/Advanced - Multiple sets (2-4) of 6-12 reps, depending on your goals
    4. Use a Challenging Weight - We only get stronger and build muscle when we use more weight than our bodies can handle. That doesn't mean you should pick up a weight you can't lift at all, it means choosing a weight you can only lift for the desired number of reps. If you're doing 10 biceps curls, you want a weight that will allow you to do 10 reps with good form. The last rep should be very difficult, but not impossible.
    1. Use Good Form - Lifting weights is only effective if you do the exercises with good form. Good form will be different depending on the exercise, but it usually means having good posture, doing slow, controlled movements rather than swinging the weights and keeping your abs engaged during each exercise.

    Flexibility Recommendations

    You have much more wiggle room when it comes to flexibility, because you can stretch any time. What you don't want to do is skip the stretch at the end of your workout because being flexible can actually help you avoid injury, increase your range of motion and help you relax. A few basic tips for stretching:
    • Stretch your muscles after your workout when your muscles are warm. Stretching cold muscles could lead to injuries
    • Avoid bouncing. Hold each stretch for 15-30 seconds and, for the best flexibility results, do each stretch 2-3 times
    • Stretch the muscles you used during your workout with a focus on any chronically tight areas like the lower back, hips and hamstrings
    You know the basics of an exercise program and you may have some general parameters to follow, courtesy of Exercise GuidelinesYou probably know the basics of an exercise program: Cardio, strength training and flexibility workouts. The confusing part is figuring out how often, how long and how hard you work at each of these elements. How much exercise you need is different for everyone,

    Next Question: Am I Getting Results?

    2. Am I Getting Results?

    This may seem like an easy question, especially if your goal is to lose weight. If the number on the scale drops, you're getting results, right? Not necessarily. A stalled scale isn't always a sign of failure, but how do you know? Taking a look at different situations can help you figure out if you need to make a change or if you're on the right track:

    1. Weight Loss - If the scale is moving in the right direction, that's a good thing. However, if it isn't moving, take a look these common issues before you decide to give up:
      • Slow Weight Loss: Some people think that slow weight loss (e.g. .5-2 lbs a week) is too slow, but that's exactly where you want to be if you want to lose fat, maintain muscle mass and keep the weight off. Fast weight loss may offer instant gratification, but it usually means you're cutting your calories at a level that may be hard to maintain for the long-term.
      • Not Losing Weight: If you're not losing weight at all, look at the time factor. It may take weeks or months to see significant changes and the body needs time to adjust to your new workouts and diet. If it's been several months and you're not seeing any weight loss, make sure your workouts are in line with the basic recommendations and focus on your diet, which has a major impact on weight loss. If you're tracking your calories and feel you're doing everything possible, but still not losing weight, make an appointment with your doctor to make sure there aren't other issues affecting your weight loss.
      • Losing Inches, But Not Weight: If you're losing inches but not weight, you may think you're not getting the results you want. However, losing inches means you're losing body fat, which is exactly what you want. The scale isn't always the best measure of your success. Take your measurements, get your body fat tested and/or pay attention to how your clothes fit. Those numbers may tell you more about your progress than the scale.
      • Gaining Weight: If you're gaining weight and that isn't your goal, you may be eating more calories to compensate for your workouts without even realizing it. Keeping a careful log of your workouts and meals can help you stay on top of things and avoid extra calories.
    1. Strength and Endurance - Weight loss isn't the only measure of you're success. Another important one is whether you're getting stronger and faster. If you're doing more cardio, lifting more weight and doing new exercises, that's a sign your body is getting stronger and fitter. If you're not making progress in those areas, you may need help from a personal trainer to find out what's going on.
    2. Better Coordination and Balance – Exercise may feel awkward at first but, over time, you should notice that the moves come easily and feel more automatic. For example, you may feel like you're on an alien planet the first time you try an elliptical trainer but, over time, it should feel like it's second nature. Pay attention to your balance and coordination and, if they're improving, that's a sign you're on the right track.
    3. Better health - One way to track your progress is to look for improvements in other areas of your life. Do you feel better? Sleep better? Have more energy? Feel good about yourself? There are so many great benefits of exercise that have nothing to do with losing weight, yet can help improve your quality of life, some instantly and some over time. Making a list of how your health has improved, both physically and psychologically, can tell you if you're getting results.

      Next Question: Am I Enjoying My Workouts?

      3. Am I Enjoying My Workouts?

      While physical results are important, another way to assess your workouts is to ask yourself: Am I enjoying this? Working out isn't always fun and it's sometimes a struggle get started, but if you feel a knot in the pit of your stomach every time you think of getting on the 'dreadmill' or use any excuse to skip your workout ("Gee, my junk drawer is way too messy for me to workout today"), something isn't working.

      If you hate what you're doing, there's a good chance you'll stop doing it at some point. Before you do, ask yourself a few questions to find out if there's another way to exercise:

      1. Do my workouts fit my personality? - If you're a social exerciser and struggling to do your workouts at home, you may prefer a gym where you can draw on energy from other exercisers. If you're a competitive person, playing basketball or racquetball may suit you better than walking to nowhere on a treadmill. During your next workout, think about what you like about it ("I like being at the gym with other exercisers") and what you don't like ("But I can't stand the cardio machines"). Is there a way to change things so you enjoy your workouts more?
      2. Do my workouts have a purpose? - This may seem like a dumb question, but if you randomly pick exercises without having any real idea of what you're working or why, exercise starts to feel pointless. However, knowing your focus is to build a strong chest or that you want to burn extra calories and build endurance with interval training, you know exactly what you're doing and why. Have a plan for every workout: What you're doing, how long, how hard and the goal of the workout. For example: "I'm doing a 45-minute interval workout on the treadmill to burn calories and work on my endurance, followed by a lower body stretch for flexibility.
      1. Do my workouts fit with my lifestyle? - If you constantly schedule 5 or 6 days of training, but only show up for 3, you end up in a cycle of frustration and failure. You may need more training to reach your goals, but something is standing in your way:
        • Your fitness level - If you're just starting out, your body may not be ready to handle more than a few days of exercise. Gradually add more time (e.g., 5 minutes to each cardio workout) or intensity (e.g., adding a set of each strength exercise after two weeks of training) to slowly work your way up to more frequent exercise.
        • Your schedule - Are you missing workouts because you're too busy to exercise? If you want to reach your goals but aren't doing enough exercise to get there, you have to make a choice: Do you change your goal or do you change your schedule? Or perhaps you make small changes in your schedule to accommodate more exercise, building on that as it gets easier. You don't have to change your schedule overnight, so start small and practice making exercise a part of your life. The more you practice, the easier it gets.
        • Your priorities - If exercise is a priority while you're planning it, but not during the follow-through, it may not be as important to you as you think. If exercise matters to you, you'll be more motivated to do it. If you keep scheduling and skipping, ask yourself what would make it more of a priority? If you knew exercise would give you more energy during the day or that it would help you sleep better at night, would that motivate you? Finding the value in exercise, beyond weight loss, can help make it a priority.
      1. Do I need new goals? - It may seem strange, but try shifting your focus from weight loss, which happens slowly, to the actual steps you need to lose the weight. Watching the scale inch its way down at a glacial pace may not make you feel very successful, but checking off each workout you do, knowing each one will eventually lead to weight loss, can give you a sense of accomplishment that will keep you going.

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