21 Sneaky Signs You Had a Successful Workout

21 Signs of a Successful Workout That Have Nothing to Do With Sweat or Soreness

It’s not always easy to gauge whether you’ve had a successful workout—and that’s especially true if you’ve been finding yourself working out differently than usual these past seven or so months, whether you’re running, lifting weights in your living room or taking your virtual HIIT class.

Some people use sweat or soreness as their barometers for workout success. But those are largely irrelevant in judging a workout’s actual effectiveness in terms of getting fitter or stronger, says Christel Oerum, a certified personal trainer and the cofounder and head coach of Diabetes Strong.

Your sweat rate does tend to increase as you exercise more intensely. However, it also depends on things like the temperature, what you’re wearing, and how well you’re hydrating. In other words, it doesn’t actually tell you much about your workout’s effectiveness.

As for soreness, while it does sometimes indicate you’ve worked your muscles hard enough for them to adapt and rebuild stronger, there are also ways to achieve this without having to hobble down the stairs in pain. Plus, extreme soreness is often unpleasant enough to make people skip their next workout or put them off resistance training altogether—and it may mask the signs of a developing injury, Oerum says.

Finally, soreness naturally diminishes the more you work out, thanks to something called the repeated bout effect—the subsequent times you do a particular move, you sustain less painful muscle damage, according to a 2017 review of the topic published in Exercise and Sport Science Reviews. So the more adept you get at a particular exercise, the less likely you are to feel sore from it.

Tons of sweat and soreness can result from a workout, but they don’t need to, and they’re not necessarily the best indicators of a successful workout. In fact, chasing them can be counterproductive.

Fortunately, there are many other ways to measure a good workout, and not all of them are physical. Whether you’re a data-driven fitness geek or a more intuitive exerciser, here are some signs you can count that day’s workout as a victory.

1. You feel better than when you started.

Not all the gains of exercise occur in your muscles, anyway. “We often neglect the emotional benefits of just moving our bodies,” Leeja Carter, Ph.D., assistant professor of sport and exercise psychology at Long Island University-Brooklyn. “If it makes you feel good—if you feel like, ‘Hey, I’ve done something for my body and myself today and I’m just going to live in that gratitude’—I think that’s a win.”

2. Exercises you’ve done before feel easier.

Chicago-based certified personal trainer Rae Reichlin, founder of Ladies Who Lift, sets up her strength-building programs so clients are cycling through the same exercises for three to six weeks. She asks them to log their workouts, tracking not only their numbers, but also how each one felt.

Say you’re doing three sets of 12 goblet squats with a 10-pound dumbbell. Week one, you might note: “That was so hard, I didn’t think I was gonna get through it,” she says. But the next week, the exact same pattern might feel much more manageable. That’s progress, she says.

Similar concepts apply to cardio. You might finish a fast interval less breathless than you did the week before, for instance, or be able to run for 10 minutes straight instead of alternating walking and running intervals, Oerum says.

3. Or you were able to make them harder.

Picking up a 12-pound weight instead of a 10-pound one for the same movement also means you’re building strength. If you’re using resistance bands, you might swap out a lighter blue band for a heavier purple one.

With cardio, adding an incline on the treadmill, an uphill to an outdoor run, or resistance to your indoor cycling bike is a sign you’ve moved forward. “It’s like in life—you need a little bit of pushback sometimes to make you a better person,” Kellen Townsend, a cycling instructor in Chicago, tells SELF.

4. Your form improved.

Regardless of the weights you’re using while strength training, you’ll know you’ve crushed it if you can execute each move with better form.

For instance, you might keep your back flatter during a move like a deadlift or a bent-over row, or notice you’re using less momentum and more core strength to power you through a leg raise. Even just feeling a greater sense of control throughout your movement, or executing each rep at a steadier pace, means you’re nailing it.

And back to soreness for a minute. You’ll likely feel less of it in areas you shouldn’t—say, your lower back after deadlifting or in joints like your knees instead of muscles like your glutes after squatting—as your form improves.

5. You’re more coordinated.

Not everyone has natural rhythm, but if you’re doing complex or fast-paced cardio, you’ll know you’re advancing when you master more steps or sequences. Alongside that, you’ll likely feel a surge of confidence. 

6. You feel empowered in a way that transcends fitness.

That self-assurance can also carry over into the rest of your life—say, work, school, relationships, or any other area where you might face challenges.

Feel-good vibes can motivate you to keep that trend going. If it encourages you to take some type of action in your life that isn’t necessarily tied to working out but is tied to your overall well-being. That might mean drinking more water and focusing on sleep.

7. You contributed to the greater good.

Of course, you can fold positive social action directly into physical activity. Sign up for a virtual event that supports a cause you believe in.

A neighborhood walk, run, or bike ride can double as a chance to pick up trash or check in on your neighbors. 

8. You moved through a greater range of motion.

A lower squat. A full chin-up instead of a half. Push-ups where your arms are fully extended at the top. These more complete motions mean you’re gaining strength and more effectively targeting the muscles you’re intending to work, Oerum says.

9. You slept more soundly that night.

In a 2017 review of 34 studies published in Advances in Preventive Medicine, 29 found exercise improves both the quantity and quality of sleep. 

10. You felt the right muscles firing.

Speaking of effective targeting, another measure of success is a stronger mind-muscle connection. That starts by knowing which areas each exercise is intended to work. If you don’t have a trainer or instructor cueing you, do a little background research on any moves you’re unsure about. 

Then pay close attention to which muscles feel like they’re driving your movement. “Say you’re doing reverse lunges. You want to feel it in your glutes, your hamstrings, and a little bit in your quads,” Cheng says. If you do—and especially if the sensation is similar on both sides of a one-sided move—count it as a win. (And if not, you have a great goal for next time.)

11. You kept it up for longer.

As you gain fitness and endurance, you’ll notice you can keep moving for longer before you fatigue. You might start by being able to run 10 minutes, but eventually you can work your way up to 15, 20, and longer, Oerum says.

A similar calculus applies to strength training. A sign of improved strength can be more weight, but it can also be more sets and more reps, extra helpful if you’re limited in your home equipment.

12. You’re less tired afterward

Your legs may be shaking after the workout. That quivering itself means you worked hard—but so too does the fact that you don’t feel it as much once you start getting used to the workout.

In fact, once you get into a groove, regular workouts actually increase—rather than deplete—your energy throughout the day. 

13. You’re looking forward to the next one.

Similarly, effective workouts should challenge you, but not to the point of dreading another one. At the end, you want to feel accomplished and invigorated. You showed up, you showed out, you did your thing, and you can’t wait to do another one.

14. Your mood improved.

15. You took a step in managing a physical condition.

Of course, exercise also benefits people with a wide range of physical ailments, from arthritis to heart conditions. And while some of these perks add up over time, others can appear after a single session.

For people with type 2 diabetes, even 15 minutes of movement after a meal can have an instant impact on blood glucose management, Oerum says. Physical activity can also increase your insulin sensitivity; this means your blood sugar will come down by itself more efficiently, and if you use insulin, you’ll need less of it.

A benchmark of success is knowing that, by engaging in physical activity, you’re taking that one step further in managing health issues.

16. You created space for yourself in a tumultuous time.

One benefit of physical activity, if you allow yourself to go there, is allowing you that time to be completely off from what’s happening in the world.

If you can essentially quiet your brain and enter a flow state—or even just succeed in putting your phone down for a few minutes—you’ll likely finish your workout feeling like a burden has been lifted. One sign of a successful session is that time flies by: You’re not looking at your watch, instead, it’s like, It’s over already? How did that happen so quickly?

17. You made a new or deeper connection with someone else.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that social connections can exist outside physical proximity. Take Carter and her Peloton treadmill—by signing into a class, she feels linked to others with a goal of self-care. “I’m participating in a culture of health, virtually,” she says. “And being part of that culture, that community, feels really good.”

These associations don’t have to be in real time, either. Cheng’s online programs come with access to a Facebook group. There, she watches people who didn’t know each other at first turn into each others’ biggest cheerleaders. “It’s a big part of why they’re so successful,” she says.

18. You inspired someone else to move.

Motivating your partner, kids, or friends to sweat alongside you can strengthen your relationships and empower you as a role model for a holistic, healthy lifestyle.

19. You got in touch with music.

Studies show cranking up some music can help you work out longer and harder with less effort. 

20. You showed up at all…

Really, any workout you completed and felt good about is an effective one—especially right now. Setting aside time for physical activity is an important commitment to self-care and well-being. If you honor that pledge even when your motivation is low, you’re reinforcing your own value and self-worth.

21. …or you listened to your body and didn’t.

Of course, there are some days when you’re not feeling it for good reason—you’re getting over an illness, preventing or coming back from injury, or just plain need a little more sleep instead of an early-morning run or lifting session. In some cases, despite the always-push messages you may see on social media, the best workout for your overall fitness well-being might be the one that you skip.

The purpose of exercising is to strengthen your muscles, your heart, your lungs, and your overall health. But part of the psychological connection comes with being kind to yourself and knowing today is just not a good day for me to get out and get moving.


Written by Runners Essentials

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