How Do I Know if I’m Working Out Hard Enough?

My last post tackled the question of how we know if we are making progress in our exercise program. That discussion took more of a long view of things, but how do we know if we are working hard enough in any given workout? This is a topic that I have blogged about in the past as well: once on 9/6/2020 and then a few days later on 9/10/2020.

To recap, when it comes to cardio exercise there is a formula that is often used to determine if the workout is effective. It is not exact, but the equation is 220 minus your age; that number gives you the maximum heart rate, but the goal is to be at 65-85% of that number. For instance, a person who is 70 should not exceed 150 beats/minute; the “sweet spot” is between 97 and 127. When it comes to resistance training (weights), it is a little more complicated as it will depend on what the goal is. Rather than going into detail here, consult your favorite fitness professional; recommendations will vary in relation to a number of factors such as age, current level of fitness, injuries, etc.

Still, in any given workout, is there an easy way to get a sense of things? For cardio, there is something called the “talk test.” If a person is able to talk while doing the exercise (running, biking, etc.) it would be considered moderate; if a person can talk with difficulty but not sing, that is a more vigorous level. If the person is unable to speak at all (like during a sprint), that is the highest level of exertion–one that can only be carried out for a limited amount of time. What level is appropriate? It will depend on a number of factors (are you just trying to stay fit, or are you training for a marathon?), but going back to the formula above will help.

For resistance training, I usually recommend a weight that allows the client to do 12 reps with the last few being difficult. If all 12 reps are easy, it is time to either add weight or reps, or in some other way increase the level of difficulty. Those looking to bulk up, will follow a different set of standards–generally, heavier weight with less reps. I also use the RPE or Rated Perceived Exertion; this is fairly subjective, but it asks the exerciser to rate how difficult an exercise is. I use a 1-10 scale with 10 being the most difficult; most clients are honest (although we all know the adage “never tell a personal trainer something is too easy!”) This is a relatively simple way to gauge the level of work for both resistance and cardio training.

The key is not to rest on one’s laurels. When an exercise becomes to easy, it will not help to accomplish the fitness goal. Progression to a more challenging level is what is called for.

Although it can seem confusing at times, we are usually our own best judges of how hard we are working. We need to be honest with ourselves, though, so as not to overwork or underwork. Being honest with ourselves is a good rule in every aspect of our lives.

Cover All Your (Muscle) Bases

In youth, there are certain “rules” that many follow when engaging in resistance training. The reasoning goes that for men to be more attractive they need to concentrate on their arms and chest. Women may feel the need to focus on abdominals and glutes. These rules do not apply in the same ways as we enter older adulthood.

Do not take this to mean that older adults are not concerned about their appearance; rather, as we age we need to take a more holistic approach to the muscles we exercise. It is important to pay attention to the muscle groups that help us to perform the activities of daily living (ADL) such as walking, climbing stairs, carrying groceries, bending down to pick up something we have dropped on the floor, etc., not just the ones that get us noticed when we wear tight clothes! After all, what good is having gigantic biceps and a huge chest if we cannot make our way across the room?

A recent article on AARP’s website by Michele Wojciechowski highlights some of the often-ignored muscle groups that deserve our attention and exercise. The author highlights the following areas: 1) The hip area (the glutes and hip flexors); these are key to walking and getting up from a seated position. 2) The core; this part of the body is from the shoulders through just below the hips and serves as support for the entire upper body. Often, older adults with poor posture have weakened core muscles. 3) The knees–which are not a muscle, but a joint; they are supported by the quads and the hamstrings; keeping those strong and limber is key to walking, climbing stairs, standing, and maintaining balance. 4) Ankles and feet; again, vital to walking but also important in maintaining balance and stability; ask anyone who has had feet or ankle problems and they will tell you that it seriously inhibits mobility. 5) The neck; not keeping the supporting muscles strong and limber will literally cause “a pain in the neck.” It is not uncommon at all to see older adults whose heads are perched out well in front of the chests; this causes problems beyond appearance, possibly affecting sleep, posture, and the ability to drive a car. 6) Hands and wrists; while many are hit by arthritis in this area, others simply allow the lower arm muscles to weaken, which limits the ability to perform fine motor skills like writing, eating, typing.

As I age, I am concerned about my appearance. I always want to put the best version of myself forward. For me this means not only working on the “sexy” muscles, but also on the ones that will keep me active and independent. Do not overlook these muscle groups or they will have a way of calling your attention to them in a way you might not enjoy.

Am I Working Too Hard or Not Hard Enough – Part II

Harvest of barbells - Valinhos, SP

In my last post, I tackled the question of cardio exercise and how to know if we are overdoing it or underdoing it.

Now, we turn to resistance or weight training.

The truth is that this is really a trick question…or at least a really complicated one with not nearly as simple a formula as in the case of cardio.

Here are some factors to take into account:

  1. What are your goals in lifting weights?
  2. Are you looking to merely “tone up” or “bulk up?”
  3. Have you had injuries/illnesses that may affect your ability to do heavy lifting?
  4. Are you using the proper form (at any weight)?
  5. Related to the previous, are you in a safe environment where someone is able to spot you when necessary (i.e., be there in case you can’t get the weight back on the rack, or if you stumble, etc.)?
  6. How much time do you have, or how efficient do you need to be with your time? Can you get to the gym or your weight set only 1-2 times per week or 4-6?

This will sound self-serving, but except for those with extensive athletic/weight training experience, it makes sense to be in touch with a fitness professional. There are, of course, ways of determining the proper weight given the goals that are sought. Once a proper weight has been found, though, most programs integrate progression; progression basically means making the workout more challenging either by increasing weight, the number of reps, the number of sets, or adjusting the degree of difficulty in another way. No matter what one’s goals, progression is a core principle, so knowing where to start is simply that: a start.

From a personal standpoint, you may remember that I had bicep tendon surgery 6 weeks ago. The amount of weight that I am able to lift with my right arm is way below what one would typically expect; in PT, I am up to 2 pound dumbbells for certain exercises. If all I cared about was huge muscles, this would make me crazy; it is a little frustrating, but I know that eventually I will be able to get to higher weights that will allow me to reach my own personal fitness goals.

In the end, whether you are working too hard or not hard enough is a very personal question. It is not one-size-fits-all. For best results, consult a fitness professional. Personal trainers are a great bet. Don’t be afraid to reach out; you’ll be pleased that you did.

Another reason why Seniors should be Weight Training

In all my courses, we have been taught that working out–and especially weight training–is good for individuals at any age. Current trends are aimed at getting the 50+ crowd to understand the importance of resistance work along with cardio exercise.

I am currently recovering from foot surgery and will be unable to walk for four weeks. I have a scooter and crutches; they are tools, but they cannot perform all the functions necessary to get around. Thank goodness I have been working on building muscle strength over the years. I have found that I can balance on one foot for a while (thanks yoga!), push and pull myself up, hop around my car to get to the scooter in the trunk. It is the difference between having some independence and none at all.

This is an argument that should be made to seniors. Weight training isn’t necessarily about have a killer beach body; we need the strength to help us navigate the Activities of Daily Living. And when we do find ourselves with an injury, hopefully the hard work of resistance training we have put in will allow us to compensate for our deficits (in the long- or short-term).

As someone who has never had to rely on devices to help me ambulate, I have learned a lot in the last few days. I get why we have extra-wide handicap spaces. I get why we have ramps. The ADA has gone a long way to making public places accessible. If, however, we lack the basic strength to make use of these accommodations, what is the use?

We are never too old to lift weights. Muscle degradation does not need to be in our future. Seniors: get off of those treadmills a few times a week and get to the dumbbells! You’ll be glad you did.