Most of us work out with the general goal of becoming stronger, fitter, happier, and healthier versions of ourselves. To ensure we continue along the right path, we tend to gauge the “goodness” of our workouts according to certain metrics. Often, if a workout meets these metrics, it gets our stamp of approval; if not, we try harder the next time around.
It’s sound logic. However, some indicators don’t tell you as much about the effectiveness of your workout as you may think. You see, some of the numbers and characteristics we use to evaluate the “success” of exercise just don’t reflect its true value. Others, meanwhile, keep us focused on the wrong things and can even lead us towards an imbalanced and unhealthy relationship with movement.
To keep your workouts as helpful as possible, you’ve got to know what to focus on—and what not to think twice about. Here, experts share three factors that indicate you’ve had a beneficial workout—and which common markers of success you should feel free to blow off.
3 Things That Don’t Define a Good Workout
These workout indicators can be nice to have, but they don’t tell the whole story. Don’t rely on them alone.
1. How sweaty you get
Ending a workout dripping in sweat sure can feel satisfying, but don’t fret if it doesn’t happen for you—and don’t stress about getting as drippy as possible every time you move.
“Obviously, you’re going to increase your sweat rate when you exercise intensely,” says Anel Pla, C.P.T., a trainer at Simplexity Fitness in New Jersey. However, other factors also influence how much you sweat—and not all of them are related to how hard you’re exercising. Everything from how much you weigh, to how much salt and water you’ve consumed, to the clothes you’re wearing, to the temperature of your workout environment will affect how sweaty you get, Pla says.
Read More: Are You Getting Enough Electrolytes?
Plus, at the end of the day, sweating simply means you’re losing fluids—so though it can indicate that you’re working hard, it doesn’t mean you’re reaping more benefits from your workout. “Sweat is simply our body’s natural cooling mechanism,” says Lauryn Mohr, M.S., Pn1, a personal trainer at Life Time in Omaha. As we sweat, the fluid evaporates off the surface of our skin, creating a cooling sensation.
Also important to know: In some cases, trying to sweat as much as possible can actually be harmful. As a newbie, for example, chasing all the sweat may encourage you to work at an intensity you’re not ready for just yet, which can up your chances of injury, according to Mohr. Or, if you’re exercising in a hot or humid environment, you may push your body to work beyond its capacity to efficiently evaporate sweat, which puts you at risk of heat exhaustion or heat stroke, she adds.
2. How many calories you burn
Yes, it can sometimes be helpful to keep tabs on how many calories you burn during a workout. After all, a higher calorie-burn may indicate a more taxing workout, which means you’ll need to place a greater focus on recovery before hitting the gym again, Mohr notes.
Tracking calories may also serve as an occasional reality check to find out if you’re working as intensely as you think you are, Mohr says. However, you shouldn’t use calories burned as an indicator of a good workout.
For starters, whatever number you get from your fitness tracker or cardio machine may not even be very accurate, Pla warns. One study of five fitness trackers found that the wearables overestimated calorie-burn during exercise by 14 to 23 percent. Similarly, earlier research revealed that four different cardio machines overestimated calories by 19 percent.
What’s more, chasing a certain number during each workout can lead to overdoing it. Focusing on your calorie burn may encourage you to drive your intensity as high as possible, Mohr says. And when you do this, you lose focus on your form, breathing, or other key components of a safe, effective workout. It’s a surefire way to get hurt (or at least burnt-out).
It’s also important to remember that there is so much more to exercise than burning calories, even if your goal is weight loss. Movement offers many powerful benefits for your physical and emotional health. In fact, Pla has seen plenty of clients drop their blood pressure enough to ditch medications, feel more confident in their skin, and find a sense of empowerment in nailing milestones like completing a full pushup. Ultimately, movement has so much more to offer than that single number.
3. How sore you feel
Many exercisers wear muscle soreness like a badge of honor. However, feeling tender after a workout (known as delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS), isn’t a requirement of an effective session.
“Soreness is really an indicator of the novelty of a workout,” Mohr says. Anytime you introduce a new movement or add extra stress (like more reps, sets, or weight) to your routine, your body may respond by getting sore. Making these changes to your routine is a good thing, according to Pla; however, they don’t have to leave you struggling to walk in order to be working their magic on your fitness.
In fact, chasing soreness with every workout can be counterproductive. “The recovery process is just as important as the workout,” Pla says. If you don’t give your muscles ample time to recover from the stress that makes them feel sore, you undercut your results. Plus, feeling sore 24/7 just isn’t fun, is it?
3 Workout Indicators To Pay Attention To Instead
Though any workout is truly something to be proud of (especially when motivation runs low), if you like to have some way of measuring whether you’ve done your body good, the following metrics do a much better job at cluing you into the benefits you’re reaping.
1. Mood and energy
Are you happy and energized after your workouts? If you regularly feel drained, consider it a sign that your workouts are off.
No one is saying your workouts should never be tough; just that they shouldn’t suck all of the energy out of you. “I always tell people to leave one rep in the tank,” Mohr says. “You never want to leave so depleted that you feel like you can’t give anything next time.”
In fact, if you strike the right balance between pushing and recovering, you should finish every workout feeling even better than when you started, she adds. And if your workouts truly make you feel good, you’re more likely to stick with a routine long-term.
2. Progress over time
Though it’s nice to see instant feedback about your workout on your fitness tracker or smartwatch, oftentimes, you won’t really know how effective your workout was until later. So long as your training and recovery are on-point, you’ll keep seeing progress from one week to the next, Pla says.
A few indicators that you’re on the up-and-up include:
- Lifting heavier weights or lifting a given weight for more sets or reps
- Running, cycling, swimming, or rowing faster or further
- Losing inches around your waistline
- Exercising more often during the week
- Improving exercise form
- Nailing new exercises (think full pushups or box jumps)
Progress over time is the ultimate sign that your individual workouts are working some magic. After all, it’s the long-term results we’re truly after, right? On the flip side, if your progress comes to a halt—or worse, even takes a step backward—you’ll know something’s not right with your workouts and/or recovery.
How well you sleep at night can also clue you in on your workout from earlier that day, as well as the cumulative effects of your weekly routine. You see, a good workout releases feel-good chemicals that help combat stress and anxiety, which are two common foes of sleep, notes the Cleveland Clinic. Too much exercise and/or too little recovery, on the other hand, can have the opposite effect.
In fact, research shows that too much intense exercise increases your levels of the stress hormone cortisol. (Normally, cortisol levels decrease once your workout is over.) So, “if you’re not sleeping well, it’s a clear indicator that you’re overreaching and not recovering well, and that your workouts are just another stress for your body,” Mohr says.
Sound a little too familiar? Consider it a sign that you need to better prioritize recovery or tone down the intensity of your routine to find balance and reap the benefits.