There are some telltale signs that a workout routine is effective: Your energy and confidence skyrocket, you can lift heavier and log faster times, and both your gym and non-gym clothes start to fit differently, to name a few.
It’s not always as obvious, however, when a workout routine isn’t right for you, since the discovery requires you to reflect on how you’re feeling both physically and emotionally, as well as how consistent you’ve been with your efforts, explains Erik Chase Steffens, C.P.T., senior fitness instructor at Barry’s.
If you’re willing to take a close, honest look at your program, there are a few warning signs that indicate your workout routine isn’t working and it’s time for a change.
1. You Don’t Enjoy Your Workouts
This might sound obvious, but if your exercise routine feels like punishment, you’re doing it wrong. “A regular exercise routine should enrich your life,” says Steffens. If your workouts make you feel bleh or stressed out instead of confident and capable, then it’s time for a switch.
If this resonates, dedicate a few weeks to experimenting with different types of exercise programs and settings. “It may take time, but try to find a form of exercise you genuinely look forward to—whether that’s taking a group fitness class or working out from the comfort of your home,” Steffens suggests. As you do, consider keeping a log of how you feel before, during, and after each activity. Once you find an activity (or two!) that has a net positive on your mood, stick with it.
It’s also worth mentioning that crankiness (as with declining motivation to work out) is also a sign of overtraining syndrome, a condition marked by excessive exercise and inadequate recovery. So, if you now dread a modality you used to love and are experiencing fatigue and performance declines, the issue could be how much you’re training, not the type of training, Steffens adds. If you suspect this might be the case, check in with a credentialed fitness professional.
2. You’re Getting Injured
Your workout routine should be designed to help you maximize the quality of your life. If you’re a fan of hiking, for example, it should provide you the stamina you need to do it as frequently as you wish. So, if workout-induced injuries are sidelining you from your hobbies and other activities that bring you joy, it’s time to reevaluate your fitness regime.
You may not have to abandon your routine entirely—but it probably needs some tweaks if you keep getting hurt. Steffen recommends talking with a certified fitness professional to analyze your training program, form, and any previous injuries that might be causing trouble.
“Most of the time, it’s not the workout itself that is causing the injuries, but immobilities throughout the body that are wreaking havoc on your form,” Steffens says. For instance, you’re not getting injured because you’re squatting and squatting is bad (it isn’t!). Instead, you’re getting injured because you’re not moving with good form. Running is often a similar story; you don’t have to hang up your sneaks for good, but making your routine productive instead of harmful might take some scheduling and technique adjustments.
3. You Feel Sore Long After Your Workout
According to Steffens, it’s normal to experience some soreness or stiffness for a couple of days following a workout. However, if you are still experiencing soreness and pain four days out, it indicates that you’ve either strained a muscle or otherwise injured yourself, or that your workout routine is too intense for your current fitness level.
If the soreness you’re experiencing is really intense or throbbing pain, seek out the care of a healthcare provider or physical therapist. If it’s milder, you may just need to turn down the intensity of your workouts. While muscle overload is very good for our bodies in that it challenges them to better handle higher stress loads in the future, you need to find the sweet spot of overloading your muscles enough to reap the benefits but not so much that you’re too sore to work out for days after.
You might also take excess soreness as a sign to up your recovery game by dedicating more time to Epsom salt baths, massage, foam rolling, stretching, and cold therapy. “All of these activities help ease muscle soreness and support recovery by promoting lymphatic drainage and myofascial release,” Steffens explains.
4. Your Progress Has Plateaued
Quick: Think about where you were in your fitness journey six months ago. Now, think about where you are today. Have you made any progress? If you haven’t made whatever gains matter to you (such as strength, speed, flexibility, or power), your lackluster results are one of the greatest signs that your workout routine isn’t working for you as hard as it could.
Check in with any quantifiable data related to your fitness. “What evidence do you have that you’re actually plateauing?” suggests Steffens. Have you been stuck at the same squat weight or unable to shave another second off your mile time?
Before doing a complete 180 on your approach, make sure you’re implementing the principle of progressive overload to your workout routine, he says. This essentially means that you continuously and intentionally make your workouts harder by increasing weight, reps, speed, or intensity. (Here’s some more info on busting through muscle-building plateaus and fat loss plateaus.)
Regardless of the changes you make, Steffens recommends beginning to log stats about your workouts and how they’re making you feel. That way you’ll have actual proof of whether or not you’re inching towards your goals and can adjust accordingly.
5. You’re Actually Getting Less Fit
If you’re actively getting slower, weaker, less powerful, or overall less energetic, it’s important to take a real hard look at your life inside and outside of your workouts, and stat.
Start by asking yourself: How much time am I spending exercising? How much time am I spending recovering? If the latter takes a back seat to make way for more workouts, a lack of recovery—not your workouts themselves—could be to blame for your unraveling fitness.
“Losing gains is almost never a direct result of someone’s workout routine itself,” he says. “It is more likely that someone isn’t allowing their body to adequately recover between workouts, due to a poor diet or poor sleeping patterns.” If the rest of your life doesn’t support your workout routine, your body starts to pay the price.
To continue sweating as you have been, you’ll need to re-prioritize sleep, nutrition, and recovery protocols, says Steffens. However, if you’re not willing or able to implement those protocols—or just need some time to make lifestyle changes—you may need to switch your workout routine to something less intense, at least for the time being.
6. You’re Skipping Your Training Sessions
The best workout in the world is the one you actually do. If you find yourself regularly making excuses for not working out, ask yourself why. Then, find a fitness modality that your excuse doesn’t apply to, suggests Steffens. If you’re struggling to self-motivate for solo gym workouts, for example, start signing up for group classes. Or, if outdoor runs after work feel uncomfortable when the weather is darker and colder, consider a treadmill workout or a local running group.
Should you find yourself making excuses about any workout routine, Steffens recommends trying to arrange your days so that the time, place, and modality of your workout will be the least challenging or inconvenient. “Whether it’s working out first thing in the morning, during your lunch break, or after a day at work or school, look at what patterns and habits work best for your daily routine,” he says.