How to Know if You're Exercising Hard Enough

Are you in a rut at the gym and worried that you've been losing your gains? Read this to learn about a few landmarks that can tell you if your training is going in the right direction.

If you're not training hard enough, over time you can lose muscle and strength. The importance of having a good plan in place can't be understated.

How do you know if you're training hard enough to keep getting results?

Utilizing progressive overload and periodically testing your rep maxes can tell you.

Well wait.

Moving more weight isn't the only goal, you also want to make sure that you're moving well.

Writing this I'm assuming a few things:

  • You're not a beginner.
  • You are able to show and maintain good form in all your normal exercises.
  • You've been training long enough to know what it feels like to lift near your max for a set.
  • You work out on consistent or semi-consistent basis.

When you first picked up a weight, for months on end it seemed like you could do no wrong. Every time you stepped foot in the gym, you could put more weight on the bar. Once you pass that phase, now what?

Read along to find out more about rep maxes and how they can help.

You Need to Know Your Rep Maxes

The Squat, Bench Press, Pull Up and Deadlift are exercises that many programs focus on. Progress in these lifts are good indicators of your progress in your program.

These exercises are an example of what we call compound movements. They involve multiple joints and they are some of the most effective for a lot of different goals.

Different coaches have their favorite ways of going about designing a program. There are several variables of training including volume, intensity, amd frequency. This makes it hard to compare program results.

What if you lost 10lbs in 2 months working with the first personal trainer you spoke with. How do you know that you couldn't have lost more weight working with another trainer? Could you have gotten stronger?

One thing remains true above all else.

You can assume that if you are getting better at compound movements, your program is working.

Periodically testing your rep maxes can tell you if just that is happening.

There are two ways to get a repetition maximum:

  1. You can pick a number like 3, 5, or 10 and test to see how much weight you can successfully lift.
  2. You can perform a 1RM or single repetition maximum test.

Testing frequency depends on the design of the program. The timeframe you're working with might keep you from setting aside an entire week.

Experience is also one of the many factors that go into the route you choose. If you've never done a 1RM, it's acceptable to use a projection (3,5,6 etc.).

The NSCA has a load predicting chart that can be found here.

Some people keep track of the most that they can do for high, medium and low reps. These are often call rep max PRS or PRs for short.

For the most part you want to keep track of your PRs in your main compound movements and some variations of these. The goal is to stay consistent, that way you know what you're training and testing is improving.

Now for an example.

What this Process Looks Like in Practice

Let's say that you play volleyball, football and want to jump higher or, just want nicer legs. One of the most effective exercises for all those goals is the Barbell Back Squat.

There are a few different ways to perform the Barbell Back Squat:

  • High-Bar Back Squat
  • Low-Bar Back Squat
  • With a Belt
  • Without a Belt
  • With Knee Wraps
  • In a Squat Suit (used for powerlifting)

There is a conversation to be had on another day about whether these differences matter. For the most part I'd say no. Almost everyone will train with a belt when the weight is heavy.

Heavy is usually around 85% of your max or the heaviest weight that you can do for 6 reps.

To a point, the stronger your legs are, the higher you will be able to jump. Your goal might be to squat 2x your body weight (or 1.75x for women).

Choose A Training Max for Your Goal

The number of reps that you perform in an exercise are associated with the primary goal of the program;

  • If your goal is Strength you'll perform 1-5 reps in compound movements
  • If your goal is Muscle Growth you'll perform anywhere from 6-15 reps in compound movements
  • If your goal is Endurance you'll largely perform 15+ reps in compound movements

Example Test Results:

  • Barbell Back Squat-225 lbs for 5 reps
  • Barbell Bench Press- 135 lbs for 7 reps
  • Deadlift-240 lbs for 6 reps

Example Predicted 1RM:

  • Barbell Back Squat-258.62 lbs
  • Barbell Bench Press- 162.65 lbs
  • Deadlift-282.35 lbs

Let's say we want to increase our strength in the barbell back squat. To get better at lifting heavy weights, you need to focus on training with heavy weights.

If you squatted around 260lbs;

  • You would perform 1-5 reps per set
  • Resting for 2-5 minutes
  • Lifting 85-100% of your 1RM or 220-260lbs

Lifting lighter than 220 lbs would meet your goal of improving your maximal strength.

What is the Most Common Mistake with this?

Testing design depends on the nature of the program and the timeframe you're working with. The most common training mistake is trying to test your max too often.

If you've been training hard for a while, you've accumulated a lot of fatigue.

You're not ready for a test.

Think of it this way, if you've ever crammed for a test, the first thing you likely thought of after the test was sleeping. If you took that test and then tried to pick up a book immediately after-yeah, that's not happening.

The same is true for trying to test in the middle of training hard. You're not ready for it. You need to take a bit of time to decrease your fatigue by backing off your training a little.

The way we do that is by deloading or through a process called tapering. If you test your max every day that you train, you're shooting yourself in the foot.

Maxing out every day generates a lot of fatigue, without a lot of benefit.

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