“Run til ya puke.”

“No pain no gain.”

Is there a “perfect” exercise intensity out there?


Exercise intensity is highly dependent on your individual goals, fitness level and mental capacity to push yourself out of your comfort zone.

Higher intensity doesn’t always mean better. Being smart with exercise intensity is crucial for long term success.

At the same time though, many people need to re-evaluate how intense their workouts are and often times need to increase intensity, in order to see the results they desire.

Think your exercise intensity might be too high? Here are some indicators of potential over training:

  1. Your results. Plain and simple. Working out hard is important for any fitness goal, but pushing yourself past your limits instead of “pushing yourself too your limits” will hurt your results.
  2. You are getting hurt. Knee injuries or pain. Shoulder injuries. Strained back etc.
  3. The same workout is harder now than 6 weeks ago even though you haven’t changed any variables such as weight, reps, rest etc. And also considering all other life variables such as nutrition, sleep and stress have stayed constant. You are over fatigued.
  4. You dread your workouts, not because you can’t stand your trainer, but because you worked out 12 hours ago for 90 minutes and still can’t walk. You just aren’t recovering enough.
  5. You are always sore. I am talking that good feeling of muscle soreness you get from a butt kicking in the gym. If you are sore 7 days a week, your intensity might be too high.
  6. Your sleep is affected.
  7. You are getting nauseous every workout. This can be the case for someone completely new to exercise, but shouldn’t be for an experienced exerciser.

Think your exercise intensity isn’t high enough? Here are some indicators you might not be working hard enough in the gym:

  1. Your results. Plain and simple. Just as intensity can be too high for some people, I would argue most people haven’t matched the intensity needed in their workouts to their lofty goals. If you are only working out 3 days a week for 45 minutes, intensity isn’t too high because you have plenty of recovery time between workouts. If you are getting hurt, that is a matter of form and doing exercises that are safe for you.
  2. You don’t have an elevated heart rate. Your heart rate should be higher than when you are laying on the couch.
  3. You aren’t sweating. Dripping on the floor doesn’t mean you had a quality workout, but you have to at least get some sweat going.
  4. You aren’t ever getting any muscle soreness. Delayed onset muscle soreness,  that good feeling 24-48 hours after a tough workout of muscle soreness should accompany some of your workouts. This means your muscles are out of their comfort zone, getting bigger and getting stronger. Not every workout, but if you never feel this you need to get out of comfort zone a bit more.

Here are some tips to be smart about keeping your exercise intensity in check:

  1. Every 6-12 weeks take a “recovery week” where you lower exercise intensity, exercise duration, weight on the bar, length of your runs etc. Or you can do this as you feel you need it. Every 6-8 weeks has worked well for me.
  2. Rest 1 day a week. I really don’t think anyone should be working out hard 7 days per week unless you are a professional or elite athlete.
  3. Do more active recovery days like yoga, pilates, walking the dog, hiking with the family etc. 1-3 days a week of staying active, but not crushing your body with heavy deadlifts is OK to do and you won’t fall behind!
  4. If you are feeling an injury coming on, stop and be cautious. Don’t push through pain. I have done this too many times and it isn’t worth it.
  5. Stay hydrated. The first thing I have my clients do when they feel naseous in a workout is tell me about their water intake the last 24 hours. Drinking more water helps your muscles recover better from workouts too, did you know that?
  6. Make sure you are fueling your body properly for the intensity of workout you are trying to achieve. Not eating enough when working out hard is like going on a road trip with a half tank of gas….you aren’t going to make it very far. I had to get a couple nutrition points in here.

Here are some tips to increase exercise intensity safely to see better results:

  1.  Week by week progressions work best. Such as: adding 5lb to the barbell each week, increasing the time you sprint on the treadmill from 30 to 35 seconds or doing 3 sets of 5 pushups instead of 3 sets of 4 pushups.
  2. Lower your rest times. This is a big one. Instead of sitting on your phone between sets, go to Target and buy a $20 watch so you can stick to the 60 seconds rest you need for a quality workout. You might also find your workouts are done in 30 minutes and not 55 minutes, but you got just as much done.
  3. Increase your rest times. Lifting heavy weights because you want to get stronger and improve your metabolism? Well you need longer rest times the heavier you are going. This means being patient through 2-5 minute rest breaks…here you can sit on your phone. You can’t lift heavy weights on short rest, you can’t get stronger without lifting heavy weights, you can’t maximize lean muscle gain without lifting heavy weights and you can’t have a revved up metabolism without more lean muscle. So……. your rest needs to be longer than 30 seconds sometimes. This will allow you to increase workout intensity by lifting heavier weights than you would be able to lift on short rest.

Here is how I break down my workout schedule.

  1. I am consistent first and foremost. I rarely miss workouts….5-6 workouts a week….every week. Even days I don’t want to workout I get up and do it. I keep my goals in my mind all the time. Do you?
  2. I push myself to the point of wanting to throw up 1 workout a week. Why? It reminds me what my limits are. I hate this workout, but I am better for it. You might not need to do this for your goals, but I highly recommend pushing your limits once and awhile. **Note: I never actually puke, I just really get out of my comfort zone.
  3. I have 3-4 workouts per week that are pretty damn hard, but not so hard that I am sore for 4 days following them. If I was sore every single day my workouts would suck…nobody’s got time for that.
  4. I have 1 workout a week right now that is just for my arms because it is summer. This workout isn’t overly taxing on me mentally or physically.
  5. I rest every Sunday…..even if I miss a workout during the week I always rest Sunday.
  6. Every 6-8 weeks I take a recovery week and only workout 3-5 days per week instead of 6 and lower the weight on all my lifts.

If you didn’t get a clear answer on what exercise intensity is good for you after reading this, that was my point. Finding the exercise intensity that is good for you takes experimenting, changing things up, tweaking your nutrition and being consistent with all those things. When you achieve the results you want while staying injury free you know you have found what works for you.

Everyone is different and every day and every week is different. Life stressors, your mood, nutrition etc all affect your exercise on a daily basis.

But, what determines your long term success is your ability to get out of your comfort zone, which means increasing exercise intensity in many cases. Time to go for a deadlift PR.

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