In this post we discuss what makes a good strength training workout and how you can tell when you’ve had one.
What though makes for a good strength training workout and how can you tell when you’ve hit the spot?
Below I’ve listed five sensations that are commonly associated with a good session. Let’s take a look at what each of them represents and whether they are useful indicators.
This is more complicated than it initially seems so bear with me.
Burning in the muscles suggests you may be producing more lactate than you can recycle.
Lactate, often also called lactic acid, is a byproduct of anaerobic respiration. This means your muscles are working so hard that you’re not able to get enough oxygen to them to support them.
As a result lactate begins to accumulate along with other metabolites and the muscle starts to burn.
The working hard bit might sound positive, but if your goal is either to get stronger, or put on muscle, it’s not necessarily a positive sign.
Let me ask you this, have you ever painted a ceiling? I did last year and it burned my shoulders like crazy. So much so I had to keep changing arms.
If you painted a ceiling 3 x a week for 8 weeks, do you think your shoulder muscles would get stronger as a result? Would they grow in size?
Perhaps a bit but compare that to doing 3 sets of shoulder press 3 x per week for 8 weeks with an incremental load.
Which one do you think would create greater gains in strength and muscle size?
Whilst burning muscles might feel like you are having a good workout, if you’re goal is to get stronger, it might not be the best marker.
Try increasing the weight and reducing the amount of time your working for. This will make your workouts less painful, more enjoyable and lead to faster gains.
Delayed onset of muscle soreness or DOMS, has long been thought of as an indicator of a good workout, particularly in the body building community.
People usually associate the soreness you sometimes get a day or so after a strength training session with damage to the muscle.
The more soreness you experience, the more damage you’ve created and the greater the gains will be once that damage is repaired. Or so goes the theory.
Is this true though?
Again it’s complicated but the answer is no, more or less.
There’s certainly no research to correlate the intensity of DOMS to subsequent strength gains.
Conversely there’s plenty of research to suggest that DOMS will reduce the performance of the muscles affected by up to 50%.
There’s also research that suggests DOMS can be present without any damage to the muscle at all.
I know, I said it was complicated didn’t I?
There are various theories about what the actual cause of DOMS is; metabolic stress (probably not), inflammation (involved but likely not the source) and neurological factors (more likely).
The one thing we do know is that DOMS causes performance deficits that may persist for some time.
Rather than think of it as a necessary aspect of getting stronger, try to avoid it by making gradual changes to your programme.
Pain is not the sign of a good workout and should be avoided.
That said, it’s a very individual experience. When somebody says to me an exercise hurts I always ask where exactly.
If the sensation is centred in or around a joint, or near muscle attachment sites (tendons) then generally that’s a red flag and we stop to investigate.
If however the pain is in the belly of a muscle I ask them to describe the pain and intensity. If it’s a low grade aching type pain, I usually ask them to continue cautiously and see if it improves.
Should that sensation get worse, or if it also includes other sensations, we stop and again investigate.
Use your common sense but remember the general rule, when there is pain there is no gain.
Sweating is your body’s method of cooling down. It means you’re hot and your body is attempting to reduce your temperature by getting moisture to your skin’s surface
Whilst it’s true that working muscles produce heat. It’s also true that the ambient temperature can make you sweat, as well as an infection, or a spicy curry.
Sweating therefore is not an accurate indicator of a good workout.
Finally how should you feel after a workout? Look around at the language that’s used in the fitness industry. You’ll see lots of smashing it and destroying yourself. Is it necessary to feel this way after a session however?
Research in this area has mainly focussed on whether training to failure produces greater gains in strength and muscle size. Failure is defined as ‘incapacity to complete a repetition in a full range of motion due to fatigue.’
In other words you’re pushing but you aren’t moving the weight. I’d add that it should also include maintaining appropriate technique.
Most studies show that stopping with a couple of repetitions in the tank will produce similar gains in novice trainees. Whilst experienced lifters will get a little more out of reaching failure, but not a great deal.
As I mentioned before the crucial aspect here is technique. Many people either train way past the point of failure, so much so that they are using every other muscle available to continue the set.
Or the opposite, they have fail to isolate the target muscle effectively and are simply just throwing a weight around.
Either method can leave you feeling fatigued after the session, but neither will lead to optimal results.
I always aim to have my clients feeling better after the session than they did before it. Your muscles should feel worked but certainly not annihilated.
With greater levels of exhaustion comes greater risk of injury. And you will won’t make progress if you’re injured.
The thresholds for positive adaptations are usually lower than most of us think. First see what you can achieve by leaving a little in the tank.
Many of the sensations we associate with a good workout are not necessarily the best indicators. In fact some may be telling us that we’ve over done it.
We don’t need to be smashing or destroying anything, but rather applying an appropriate stimulus that will encourage our bodies to adapt.
Feeling good is ultimately the sign of a good strength training workout. Look for this and you’ll be on your way to long term, sustainable change.
By Paul Argent