How hard should you be working out?

September 21, 2012

I have gotten the question, “how hard should I be working out,” several times. It is a good question to ask, and as a trainer and rehab professional, my answer may not be what people are used to hearing. I like those television shows that focus on weight loss and changing people’s unhealthy behaviors. Those shows inspire and motivate people. The problem is that a lot of people don’t realize the amount of support provided to the people on those shows. Working out at an intense level after living a sedentary lifestyle and having a poor diet can be dangerous. It’s kind of like not knowing how to swim, and jumping into the deep end of a pool. On reality shows, there are often nutritionist, doctor’s, athletic trainers, personal trainers, and other staff on hand that can address injuries or immediate changes in a person’s health. Then there are the myriad of trainers that think as long as people leave sore and sweaty, then the session was a good one. I don’t agree with this either. I work in rehab and I often see the results of these so called “good sessions.” It has gotten so bad now that doctors and other medical professionals actually feel negatively about personal trainers! We aren’t all bad, but I have witnessed bad personal trainers, especially with these very high intensity exercises programs that are becoming more and more popular. Again, I don’t think the workouts are bad, but people need to learn correct form, be taught safe techniques, understand the concept of recovery, and utilize good nutrition to support the work they are doing.

So, back to the question, how hard should someone workout? That will be different for each individual. Some people workout too hard and others not hard enough. How do you figure out how hard you should be working? First, be sure that you are safe to exercise. If you have not been to your doctor and gotten your numbers figured out (blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar), then you may not be safe to exercise at all. Remember that PAR-Q form? That is the first thing you should look at, and if you haven’t been to the doctor in a while, go. Trust me on this. It has happened more than once that I have been the one to discover that someone has high blood pressure. Second, if you are cleared for exercise, and you are a beginner, start slowly. As time goes by, you will want to progressively increase the difficulty level of the exercises that you are doing so that you are building your strength and endurance, improving the function of your heart and lungs, and working toward your goals (weight loss, improving health, completing a 5k, etc.). If you are cleared for exercise and have been exercising for a while, the principle is basically the same, except that you will not need to start slowly, as you have already started.

You will want to have a cardio and strength program, as well as a flexibility program. The importance of strength, cardio, and flexibility exercises are 1) to build strength, 2) improve muscle tone, 3) improve your ratio of body fat and lean muscle, 4) improve the health and function of your heart and lungs 5) improve your ability to perform daily tasks (such as walking around the grocery store and carrying groceries, or playing with your kids) 6) to decrease your risk of injury when you are moving and doing thing throughout the day 7) and to improve your confidence and positive feelings about how your body looks and performs.  I like to use the Borg RPE scale to determine the intensity level of a workout.  RPE stands for Rate of Perceived Exertion. The scale is used to quantify how difficulty and intensity level of a workout. You can find the scale online (search: Borg RPE), but here is a breakdown of this scale rating exertion from 6-20:

6-7 is extremely light work

8-11 is very light, achieving about 50% of your maximum heart rate, no difficulty breathing

12-14 is somewhat hard, achieving 50-69% of your maximum heart rate, able to speak in sentences

15-16 is hard, achieving 70-80% of your maximum heart rate, able to speak in short choppy sentences

17-19 is very hard, achieving 80-90%+ or your maximum heart rate, able to speak in single words

20 is maximum effort and extremely hard, achieving >91% of maximum heart rate, unable to communicate verbally

If you have no health problems, and you are ready to begin an exercise program, then you may try to start with a warm-up (3-5 minutes) that is around a 10-11 on the RPE scale. You may then finish your workout with a cool-down that is around 10-11 on the RPE scale (3-5 minutes). In order to challenge you, your workout should be between 11-16 on the RPE scale. Listen to your body when determining how hard you can work. The first couple of weeks of your workout routine, you may need to stay between 12-14 on the scale, where you can still talk in full sentences, but you are breathing deeply. By weeks 3-4 you may be able to push for 15-16, where you should have some difficulty talking, some shortness of breath, but are able to maintain the activity. I encourage you to work 12-14 even when you are doing strength training (meaning don’t linger around at machines chatting and resting for long periods of time). During your strength training, select an amount of weight that challenges you that you can perform between 10-15 repetitions with. You should feel comfortable with the weight you are lifting, but by the time you get to 10 or 15 repetitions, you should be having a hard time lifting the weight (or if you are using bands, it should be difficult to stretch the band when you get to 10-15 repetitions).So, if you have been cleared for exercise but you have some health problems, I would encourage you to seek a qualified personal trainer (a certified trainer with a background in working with people that have health problems and will progress you through the exercises at an appropriate pace). Research the trainers, and if you can, I would encourage you to speak with your doctor regularly as you begin the training program to ensure that you are exercising at a safe level.

If you are an intermediate/advanced exerciser, then you may try to work between RPE 14-16 during exercises sustained for greater than 15-30 minutes. If you are doing interval training (such as sprint and walk/jog intervals, heavy strength training with 30-60 second rounds of various exercises with 15-90 second rest breaks, or ploymetric workouts with cardio/strength exercises in 20-60 second rounds with 10-60 second rest breaks), then you may try working between 16-18/19 on the RPE scale. Follow the same warm-up and cool down as listed above for beginners.

This is not easy to understand, so I encourage you to work with a qualified personal trainer to more accurately determine what level you should be exercising. You may find that you are working too hard, or not hard enough. My goal with my clients is to push them to their limits, but to ensure that they will be able to keep exercising, injury free (at least as far as that is under my supervision and control). Too much jumping, excessive heavy lifting, poor technique, or not enough resistance, to low intensity, and low difficulty level can all hamper your progress toward your health and wellness goals.

Remember, the information presented in this article is based on research that I have done, but without working with you personally, I cannot make any specific recommendations for what you should be doing with your workouts. This article is for informative purposes. That being said, let us know what you think, and don’t forget to like the article 😉

~ Cece

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