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How to Tell if Your Workout is Working

How to Tell if Your Workout is Working

January 13, 2016


It sounds crazy, but many people plod into the gym day in and day out, week after week, year after year, doing mostly the same thing. We are creatures of habit, and having the habit of exercising falls under the “good job” column, but nothing nothing breaks a coach’s heart more than seeing people wasting their time and dedication. Every gym or coach has to deal with their share of fair-weather exercisers. The people who muster up some motivation right around the first of the year and peter out shortly there after. We love the dedicated. The people who are in the trenches, getting it done no matter what else they may have on their plate. Extended hours at work, newborn baby at home, friends up for the weekend…come hell or high water, some people make it a point to get to the gym, and we applaud them no matter where they train. But showing up and going through the motions doesn’t always cut it. We want to make sure that our time and effort are worth it. Today we’re going to talk about what you can do to make sure your workout is working for you.

Step #1: Goal Setting

Believe it or not, this one simple but crucial step is something that is often missed, or at least messed up by most exercisers. “What are your goals” is one of the questions that we ask potential clients during our consultation, and it’s not uncommon for us to get responses such as “be in shape,” or “get fit” or “be healthier.” These are not goals, rather they are concepts, particularly ones that need context. What “fitness” means to me may not be the same as what it means to you, what you consider to be your ideal “in shape” physique” may not be the same as the next person. Goals should be need to be specific. They could be things like

  • Lose 20lbs of body weight
  • Do 5 pull-ups
  • Be able to run an unbroken mile
  • Lose 3 inches off my waist
  • Learn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
  • Compete in a Weightlifting competition


 Previously I worked in a facility where the clients would loath retesting. I never really understood it, why wouldn’t you want to see how much progress you’ve made? At Arkitect I basically have to fight clients off with a stick when it comes to retesting. Our clients love pushing themselves to be better, and it’s like watching a kid on Christmas opening gifts when they smash their own personal bests or see their progress photos. It’s a great feeling for a coach.

What to do if you haven’t progressed

If you haven’t made any progress the first thing to do is analyze if you were faithful to your plan (if you didn’t have a plan, read our write-up about exercise ADD).  Did you do all the workouts in your program? If you were supposed to train 4x weekly and only averaged 2, that might be a good indication of why you didn’t the results you wanted. Did you complete all of your workouts to the best of your ability? Did you cut corners and go through the motions or did you do your best to follow the program as prescribed? If you did all that, and still didn’t see the results you wanted, the next question would be, were your expectations realistic? For example average weight loss on a good program is about 1lb per week, if you were expecting to lose 10 or more pounds in a month, your expectations may have been a little lofty. If you put in the effort, and your expectations were realistic, the next step would be to analyze your nutrition and recovery. Although we’ve all heard the tired statement “you can’t out exercise a bad diet,” it is never the less one of the ultimate truths in the fitness industry, and despite knowing this people still try their best to do it every day. Using weight loss as an example, if you eat too much, you won’t see the weight loss you’re looking for. Unfortunately if you don’t eat enough, you won’t lose any weight either. In fitness there is no such thing as “a lot” or “a little” there is only enough, not enough or too much. If your goals are performance related, getting the right amount of calories, proteins, carbs, fats, and sleep will be of even more importance. People with athletic based goals will typically have a high work output, and if you don’t put in the proper fuel, you’ll break down quickly.

If all of that is on point (which it rarely is without people putting the effort in) and you still haven’t made progress, it’s time to get a new program, or perhaps find yourself a good coach if you don’t have one already.

What to do if you have progressed

Wait, what?! If you made progress you should keep doing what you’ve been doing, right?! Well, not exactly… All training should be periodized, which in layman’s terms simply means progressive or evolving. It’s important to make changes to your training to ensure that adaptation (progress) continues. If you’ve been running 1 mile 3x/week, eventually that will no longer be challenging for your body. It’s always a good to add in change before you plateau rather than wait until you results dry up. If you’ve made massive progress, stick more closely to what you’ve been doing.

Things that are not a measure of training efficacy

  • How much you sweat during a workout
    • If it’s hot out, you’re going to sweat (as long as you’re hydrated). Some people naturally sweat more than others. Contrary to what some people believe, you don’t sweat out calories (you actually expel them from your breath). The weight loss you see from excessive sweating is “water weight” which should be replenished after your workout for maximum recovery and training effectiveness. Inducing extra sweating such as wearing heavy clothes in hot weather is a technique reserved for people who compete in sports with weight classes. This temporary weight loss allows them to stay within their weight limit without reducing any actual tissue size. This technique serves absolutely NO purpose for the general fitness population.
  • How sore you are afterwards
    • Muscle soreness is a result of micro-trauma in the muscle tissue, when the body sends blood filled with nutrients and oxygen to repair the tissue, the tissue will grow back bigger, firmer, and (sometimes) stronger. But this isn’t the only way we can improve performance. In fact a large portion of strength gains, particularly past the 1-3 month period of training, are neurological in nature. This means that we are getting stronger and more capable not by a physical change in our muscle, but in increased efficiency of our nervous system to command our movement. This is how people who come in sports like Weightlifting, which has weight classes, can get stronger and stronger every year without changing their body weight. We understand that the feeling of soreness can be rewarding for new trainees, but with advanced clients we actually try to avoid being sore, because being sore will decrease your performance in the next workout, and the more fit you are the more frequent your training needs to be. If you’re so sore after a workout that you can’t do anything for a few days, it’s time to rethink your program.



  • How physically challenging you perceive the workouts to be
    • I always say fitness is about what you do, not how you feel about it. If you have two clients, and one performs 50 squats in a workout, and the other only does 20, who will build stronger legs? The answer everyone always gives is “the person who does more squats.” But how do you know? Because we acknowledge that training volume is a part of results. We came to this conclusion without knowing how either participant felt during their respective squats. Maybe the guy who only did 20 threw up afterwards, and the guy who did 50 decided he still had some energy and went to run a 5k. Quality work output will always trump perceived difficulty. When I program for my competitive athletes, I create workouts that I know will make them better. How hard or easy they may feel the workouts are is almost meaningless to me. Some days will be very hard, and some days will be a walk in the park. That’s how good training works.

Testing Frequency

How often you measure your progress depends on several factors

  • What your goals are
    • If your goals are based on body weight, tracking your weight should be done a minimum of once a week, and at the very most, daily. Waist measurements which should be done in conjunction with scale measurement if weight loss is your goal, should be done twice a month.
    • If your goals are more performance based, you should retest your limits or performance every 4-12 weeks. 4 weeks is about the minimum to see any real significant change in performance.
  • What types of tests or metrics you’re using
    • It doesn’t make sense to take waist measurements every day. You just wont’ see much change day to day, but weight measurements can tell a different story when done frequently. They allow you to track how your body reacts to certain foods, and activities. Didn’t get a good night’s rest? It may make you hold more water, which will add a small amount to the scale. These things can be important to know because they help you be more rational about the number you see on the scale. Keep in in, even if you weigh yourself daily you should still have “bench mark” time to compare. For example the first weighing of each month.
  • Your personality type
    • If you obsess over things like your weight, tracking it daily is not for you. This is another reason why we suggest using multiple metrics and standards. There isn’t a single measurement tool that tells the whole story and the more rudimentary a tool is, the less of a “big picture” it will give you. For example, the scale tells you your total body weight. That includes bones, muscle tissue, fat tissue, organs, bodily fluid (and waste). If that number changes it doesn’t tell you if you’ve had a decrease in fat tissue, or a decrease in muscle tissue. It doesn’t tell you if you’ve had an increase in fluid, or an increase in muscle mass, etc…

Planning for Success

Although this post is about how to measure progress, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention how to reach your goals, because without a proper plan, most of your effort will be wasted. One of the biggest reasons we do individual training programs at Arkitect as opposed to group fitness, is because people have different goals! There are certain exercises that are simply too difficult to program with any long term efficacy in a group setting. Pull-ups and barbell work comes to mind. Even if you have enough equipment, in a group you can’t give due diligence to the technical instruction you would need to give the client in order to succeed. If a client has a goal to be able to do x-amount of push-ups, I can program specifically for that. Their program will look different than someone who wants to have a big bench press, or someone who has 30lbs to lose. Goals aside, each person will have individual weaknesses that also need to be addressed. If two people have the goal of being able to do unassisted pull-ups, and one is significantly over weight and the other is normal weight but very weak, again their programs will be different because they have different needs despite having the same goals. Fitness is a long term journey with many peaks and valleys. It’s important not to get caught up in the small set backs. Having a long term plan and trusting that plan are vital to success. Measuring your progress will ensure you’re on the right path, and help keep you motivated when you feel like all your hard work isn’t paying off!


Dr. Brett Scott


Arkitect Fitness

“We Help Athletes And Active Adults
Lose Weight, Get Fit, And Optimize Performance.”