How to have a great workout, every workout

Some weeks, you may not feel your workouts. It happens to all of us. Whether you have a lot to do at work or sleep terribly, you will be a few days behind.

Here’s the key: it’s not about pushing the limits; it’s about learning how to get a great workout every time, no matter what’s going on in your life or if you don’t “feel” it.

At Born Fitness, we measure success using a simple hierarchy:

  1. Do you exercise constantly? (Consistent can be 2-3 days a week or 4-5, both are good, but the key is whether you hit your goal week after week)
  2. Are you training intensely? (intensity is relative to your ability)

That’s all. Sure, given those two details, we’ll make adjustments so clients can see results, but we don’t worry about things like how long a workout lasts or whether we feel married to specific exercises.

Instead, it’s about finding what works for the client, creating a plan they can stick to, and making sure they put in the hard work, whether it’s for 15 minutes or an hour.

But it also means that our clients need to know and understand how to train hard.

The power of consistency: how to accept good, bad and surprising training days

Now, before you think we’re about to rant about “GO BIG OR GO HOME,” that approach is likely to violate rule #1 of consistency. We want you to train hard based on how you feel on any given day.

After all, it’s common for you to feel like crap on some days, and the idea that you need to “bring on the intensity” may be enough to keep you from training. That is what we want to avoid.

A training plan designed for real life means that some days are PR. Other days it may seem like a small step backwards… but it all adds up to consistency and steady intensity, and that results in some crazy results and jaw-dropping transformations.

Here’s some math that explains why (don’t worry, it’s not “real” math).

Assume that about 25% of the workouts are going to be a struggle, 50% of the days are nothing special but lead to small changes, and 25% of the days are amazing. If you show up every day, your health will improve in ways that will change your life.

25% of shit days are shit, but it’s better than nothing. It’s progress because you showed up and worked hard. Even if “on paper” it seems like a step backwards, this is a BIG step forward. 50% of the days that you feel human, you are making those small incremental changes that are the foundation of success at anything. And, 25% of the days you’re superhuman, that’s where you push the boundaries and expand your “ceiling” of what’s possible.

Add it all up and you’ll see that even if 75% of the days are less than you’d like to feel, you’re getting 150% better. Trust me, it’s science.

Measurement and maximization of training intensity: use of RPE and repetitions in reserve

Now that we’ve made that clear, you may still be wondering how to judge or measure your workout intensity. That’s only natural because there are so many different ways for a workout to feel hard. Taking minimal rest periods is hard. So is lifting heavy weights, combining multiple exercises into a single circuit, or even trying a new exercise that’s more challenging.

When I ask clients if they are training hard enough, I mean the difficulty of each set.

Rate of perceived exertion

One of the best ways to do this is by measuring your rate of perceived exertion (or RPE) for each set. RPE is a great way to help you get the most out of every series, no matter what you’re going through in life.

While it would be nice to see progress in each and every workout, that’s not practical or realistic. On any given day, your body can feel differently depending on what’s going on in your life. Maybe your toddler was up all night or you’re battling a cold. You could be stressed from work or not focused on your nutrition. All of these variables affect your training, but you don’t want it to lead to a bad workout.

Using an RPE for your lifts gives you the freedom to adjust the weight down (or up) and still get a great workout based on how you feel.

Typically, your RPE is listed on a scale of 1 to 10. It’s important to learn how to gauge intensity because if you think you’re training at a “10” level but really pushing yourself at a “4” level, chances are you won’t see the results you want.

But thinking about numbers on a scale after they’re all set can be confusing and, for most of our clients, hard to quantify. How are you supposed to know what a 7 feels like?

To get started, check out this graphic from the excellent work of Brad Loomis blog post:

Instead of thinking about how you feel, you shift your focus to how the exercise was performed. Were the weights moving efficiently or were you struggling? Did your muscles feel like they were working or was the load as light as an empty laundry basket?

Reserve representatives

Another way to think of RPE is “repeats in reserve” (or RIR).

RIR shines when time is limited and your workouts may only last 15 minutes (like the ones we include in The fit dad’s guide). You can increase the intensity by squeezing as many reps as you can into a workout without hitting flop.

For most movements, your goal is to stop each set with 1-2 reps in reserve. This keeps the challenge up but ensures that you are also training smart. Pushing sets to failure often enough is a recipe for injury.

As an example, let’s say you just finished a set of lunges (because we don’t skip leg day). You’re pretty sure you could have maybe done 2 more reps. We could call that 8.5 out of 10.

Whether you prefer reps in reserve or how the weight moves (my personal preference), keeping your workout in that 8-10 range is a great way to ensure you’re always maximizing intensity on each set and making your workouts a success.

If you’re having a hard time knowing if you’re on the right track, this gives you an easy way to tell how hard you pushed.

And, when you keep pushing yourself and staying healthy enough to stick with it, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll build strength, gain stamina, progress, and see your body change for the better.

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