Your workout has just ended, and you’re tired, sweaty and sore. That means you got a great workout, right? Well … not so fast.
When measuring exercise success, sweating isn’t always a reliable indicator. For example, you’re going to sweat a lot in hot yoga no matter what, as “hot” is right there in the name. And some places don’t use air-conditioning or fans (looking at you, SoulCycle). In those instances, it’s very possible you earned your drenched clothes, but you’re still impacted by the artificial climate.
Soreness isn’t necessarily a trustworthy indicator, either. If you haven’t worked out in awhile and you take a high-intensity interval training class or lift weights, it’s common to be sore even if you didn’t work to your full potential.
“Being sweaty and out of breath doesn’t always mean you got a good workout,” says Morit Summers, owner of Form Fitness in Brooklyn, New York. Fortunately, there are other ways to evaluate the effectiveness of your workout. We’re taking a look at six of those ways below.
YOU FEEL GOOD
This one seems obvious, but it’s one of the best ways to gauge success. “Sometimes the hardest part of your day is finding the energy to get to the gym when we don’t want to,” says Summers. “But you do it and leave feeling good; we get endorphins from working out.”
YOU FEEL MORE LIMBER
“Soreness and stiffness definitely happen after we workout, but you also might feel more limber,” adds Summers. If your body can generally move better than when you woke up in the morning, you know you did something right.
YOU HIT YOUR HEART RATE GOALS
“Target heart rate varies based on age, gender, weight and fitness levels,” says Dr. Gaile Vitug, a Houston-based physician. “But for an individual, it’s a pretty objective way to measure aerobic exercise.” She says hitting and then maintaining about 70–75% of your maximum heart rate for 20 or more minutes is a reliable marker you’re getting a good workout.
YOU BARELY GOT THAT LAST REP
Not every workout needs to leave you lying in the fetal position on the floor. But if you’re not challenging yourself, your fitness is less likely to improve. “Choose weights that are doable, but difficult,” says Matthew Martin, a certified personal trainer. “If you struggle with your last couple reps, you know that you’re challenging your body enough to build muscle.”
YOU’RE GETTING STRONGER
Whether you’re running for distance or lifting weights, results aren’t always noticeable right away. But over time, you’ll improve by shaving a few seconds off your time or hoisting a few more pounds on the bar. “Everyone wants sculpted arms and six-pack abs, but that takes a lot of time and a lot of work,” says Martin. If you notice you’re able to run faster, do more pushups or lift more weight, you know that you’re improving. “Those are measures of success you can be proud of even if aesthetic changes are slower to come,” he adds.
YOU SLEEP BETTER AT NIGHT
Sleep is critical for muscle recovery and it also benefits everything from mental cognition to stress levels. Fortunately, exercise itself can help you sleep more soundly at night. According to research from Johns Hopkins University, exercise not only helps you get a good night’s sleep — it helps you get the right kind of sleep. That’s because working out is associated with better slow wave (or deep) sleep, where the brain and body have a chance to recover.
“A lot of factors go into how well you sleep, but if you exercise during the day and then notice that you’re getting more restful sleep and waking up less throughout the night, you can likely thank your workout,” says Vitug.