Sweat and Soreness Aren’t the Only Signs of a Good Workout. Here Are 8 Other Surprising Markers

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When Scott Browning, ACSM-EP, an ACSM-certified exercise physiologist, started his personal training career, he took on a client who was not a huge fan of working out.

“She loved to talk,” he says. “I've never met anybody that could talk like this. She would come in and it was like pulling teeth to get her to do a basic movement.”

Browning, who was a young trainer at the time, had the mindset that his clients had to move. He wanted them to see results, feel better, and work up a sweat. This woman, though she kept coming back, was a challenge.

One day she came in particularly chipper. She explained to Browning that she’d gone to the state fair with her grandchildren and could keep up with them and attributed her extra energy and mobility to her weekly sessions with him.

Experts In This Article

“This whole time, I'd thought I failed as a trainer,” he says. “But her goals had nothing to do with athletics performance. She was profoundly proud that exercise had given her this gift to spend time with her grandkids and to feel like she wasn't a burden, that she wasn't being dragged along.”

Browning, who also holds a master's in kinesiology with an emphasis on corrective movement and sports psychology, says this was the defining moment in his career. He realized that tough workouts, sweat, and soreness aren’t always the best criteria for a good workout.

For decades, the fitness industry preached “no pain, no gain.” Nowadays, that level of intensity is considered unnecessary. Browning cautions that excessive soreness might be an indication that your workout was actually not very good.

While working up a good sweat is wonderful, and some muscle soreness is expected (within reason), there are several other indicators of a solid training session. We talked to Browning and two additional fitness experts who shared other metrics to track for signs of a good workout.

1. You feel accomplished

No matter what activity you participate in, one surefire sign you succeeded in your training session is a sense of pride after you’ve finished. Too often, athletes will jump on to the next thing after logging miles or hitting the gym without checking in with themselves to bask in the post-workout glow.

It's important to pay attention to how you feel mentally and emotionally after a workout, says Jenna Nielsen, MSW, LCSW, a clinical social worker and therapist at ADHD Advisor, who specializes in sports performance.

“The mental signs that you had a good workout are being able to finish the workout with a sense of pride,” she says. “Feeling lighter mentally, smiling more often, an increase in positive emotions, and being able to focus more effectively.”

Browning agrees.

“The best metric to use for your workout is basically how it makes you feel. You should feel empowered, like you’ve done something, and have a sense of accomplishment,” he says.

He explains that this sense of empowerment will come from completing a challenging routine. But challenging doesn't mean going all out. Instead of feeling exhausted, you might have a burst of energy thanks to being in a positive state of mind when your workout is done.

2. Your workout felt “easier”

You might understand this feeling well—you get to the end of your workout and can hardly believe it’s over. Maybe it’s a run and the miles flew by. Maybe it’s a HIIT circuit and every move felt like a breeze. Just because it felt easy doesn’t mean you didn’t work hard enough.

This “easy” feeling should show you that your fitness is improving, explains Sam Witney, CPT, a personal trainer who specializes in pregnancy and postpartum fitness.

“If you compare that workout to a workout you had maybe a few days ago or a few weeks ago, and it seems easier, that's an indication of really great progress,” she says.

Even if the overall workout feels like a struggle to get through, try to notice how different things feel throughout. For example, if a lift felt more natural, or the first 10 minutes of walking felt more comfortable, that means you’ve had a good workout and the workouts before worked.

“Your body is remembering the movements and your muscles are a little bit more prepared than they were last time to be able to handle the load that you’re using,” Witney says.

3. You hit a PR

Let us clarify. We’re not talking about a training session where you run your fastest 5K time or improve a one-rep max, the most weight you can lift for a single repetition. (Though, if that’s what you were going for, that would objectively indicate a good workout and overall progress.)

Personal records, or PRs, can vary. The number of reps at an increased weight could be a PR. Or sustaining a consistent stroke rate on the rower for a certain length of time that beat your previous session is a PR, too. Basically, if you're progressing to a point where you’re beating a previous version of yourself, you’re hitting PRs.

Of course, you might not know how well you're doing unless you’re keeping track.

“Tracking is going to be one of the most beneficial things you could do,” Witney says. “A lot of the time I'll have my clients track the weights they're using and compare the previous week's workout so they can see, ‘Okay, did I complete more reps? Did I lift heavier weight?’”

When you outperform yourself in a way that aligns with your overall fitness goals, then a PR is a definite sign of a good workout.

“The process and the path to fitness should be enjoyable. People should feel like they want to go back to it. And they should feel capable.” —Scott Browning, ACSM-EP

4. You feel better than when you started

While tracking weights, reps, paces, and other stats may work for some, others need a different approach. With many clients, Browning uses subjective measurements to rate workouts.

“The majority of the people I work with, their objective is to actually feel better,” Browning says. “So unless they're metrics- oriented, they might not care that they did extra weight today. But if I make them feel better, that’s fantastic.”

Browning begins each session by checking in with his clients to see how they’re feeling and ends every session with the same question. You can do the same to see if your workout was a success.

For many people—especially those prone to overtraining or experiencing exercise burnout—using this frame of reference can be even more helpful than using traditional metrics. Plus, an improved mood and general sense of well-being is a hallmark sign of a good workout.

“This tends to happen because you've activated different areas of your brain and released different neurotransmitters that increase joy, decrease stress, and improve overall mood,” Nielsen says.

5. You’ve explored emotions

Movement can be a healing force when it comes to complex feelings. So even if you’re slogging along at 1 mile per hour on the treadmill, but you’ve given yourself time to process a difficult decision or tough situation, your workout was probably more beneficial than you know.

“What I discovered through my athletic career and having some trauma and tragedy in my own life is that movement gave me a space to feel,” Browning says. “It gave me an unencumbered space to explore feeling without judgment.”

Nielsen explains that this type of processing is common during activity and says that exercising can calm your mind.

“You can be more present when you exercise,” she says. “Emotional markers that would indicate a good workout would be a decrease in anger or irritability, increase in attention and concentration, decrease in sadness, and an increase in energy.”

6. You notice an improved range of motion

Mobility is such an underrated metric in fitness, and yet it’s so important in the gym and everyday life. So, if you’re working out one day and notice your body moving in ways it wasn’t able to before, you can mark that down as a good training session.

Witney says this goes back to paying attention to how your exercises feel in your body.

“Let’s say you’re squatting,” she says. “If, on week three, you notice your squat is lower than it was on week one, your mobility is better. You have more balance. Your ankles, specifically, have improved movement. That’s huge.”

7. You pushed through

You know those days when you would rather sit on the couch and eat chips than work out? We’ve all been there. Sometimes, whether you’re following a training plan or have a goal or a personal training appointment, you have to get up and force yourself to put on some workout clothes.

Nielsen says that in this scenario, just getting to the workout is a mental win.

“You mentally outperform yourself by being able to push through the negative thoughts you might have due to not being physically at your best,” she says. “You can also mentally outperform yourself by being able to stay positive even when you're feeling a bit sluggish or off. You can find acceptance in your physical ability, which will improve your mental ability to overcome physical weakness. Sometimes our best mental performances happen when we're not physically at our best because it takes more effort to stay positive and push through the workout.”

So while you may not feel great going through the motions, you’re working a mental muscle which is an essential part of a good workout.

8. You listened to your body

On the flip side of pushing through a workout, sometimes you need to quiet the nagging thought to get moving and take a rest day.

“For a lot of people who are active and engage in physical activity, it can be hard to listen to your body and not push through an exercise even if you're going to injure yourself,” Nielsen says. “If you can accept mentally that you are helping your body and keeping it healthy by stopping, then you're achieving physical and mental success.”

The same goes for if you’re in the middle of an activity and notice something is off or painful. Stopping, instead of pushing through the pain, means you’ve succeeded in your workout for the day.

“It's a huge mental success to actually listen to your body and stop when you feel you're not physically able to continue,” Nielsen says. “It takes being aware of your body to notice that your body is not physically performing well. This mental awareness is part of what a successful workout looks like.”

The bottom line: If it feels good, it’s a good workout

No matter what your goals are, an indication that you’ve nailed your workout is that you feel good and are looking forward to the next training session.

“The process and the path to fitness should be enjoyable,” Browning says. If it’s not, a good coach could make the difference. “People should feel like they want to go back to it. And they should feel capable.”

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