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 last seven or so months, whether you’re lifting weights in your living room or taking your virtual HIIT class outdoors.
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 co-founder 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, tells SELF. “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.
Added difficulty can also come from a more advanced movement pattern. You can use the same weight, but pause at the bottom of a squat or add a pulse to a lunge, says Beverley Cheng, a Toronto-based trainer with a coaching company called Born to Sweat.
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, Reichlin says. Or, you 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, Reichlin adds.
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. “Maybe I looked like a baby chicken that was just born when I first started, and now I look like a stallion,” dance fitness instructor Keaira LaShae, creator of the platform If You Can Move, tells SELF.
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. Reichlin has a client whose mother recently passed away. “Within her grief, she’s coming back to that idea that five days a week, she’s proving she can get through something really tough all on her own,” she says.
Townsend counts a class as a success when its feel-good vibes motivate him to keep that trend going: “If it encourages me to take some type of action in my life that isn’t necessarily tied to working out but is tied to my overall well-being,” he says. That might mean drinking more water, focusing on sleep, wearing a mask to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, or even voting.
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, such as the TrackGirlz’s Virtual Speed Series—a 200-, 400-, or 800-meter race where proceeds go to the non-profit’s efforts to empower young girls and increase their access to the sport—a Zumbathon that blends dance with fundraising, or Workout for Water, a partnership between Les Mills and UNICEF where you can request donations while taking a wide range of classes.
A neighborhood walk, run, or bike ride can double as a chance to pick up trash or check in on your neighbors, Carter says. In addition to the miles she runs on her Peloton treadmill, she packs boxes of meals and climbs stairs to deliver them through the Hudson County Hunger Project, a partnership between restaurants, drivers, and the local health department that she coordinates and that has fed thousands of vulnerable residents.
Looking for ideas? Try hitting up EventBrite for local fundraising classes, connect with a nearby mutual aid society or food bank that needs volunteers to do heavier labor, or search social media for a local group doing #plogging (picking up trash on the run).
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. For Carter, scheduling workouts for early evening also acts as a cap on her workday. She’s less tempted to keep staring at her laptop screen into the evening, which translates into more quality sleep.
10. You felt the right muscles firing.
Speaking of effective targeting, another measure of success is a stronger mind-muscle connection, Reichlin says. 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. (SELF’s workouts can help break it down for you.)
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 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,” Reichlin says—extra helpful if you’re limited in your home equipment.
12. You’re less tired afterward.
For as upbeat as they are, LaShae’s dance workouts aren’t easy: “Your legs may be shaking after the workout,” she says. 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. Cheng says she notices that when she takes a few days off, she’s dragging. “But then as soon as I start working out again, all those endorphins start building back up,” she says. “It’s just such a positive feedback loop.”
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,” LaShae says.
That’s also one way Townsend measures his success as an instructor. “You want people to think about the workout the next day, and to be like, I want to go back and do that again,” he says.
14. Your mood improved.
After her second baby, LaShae developed postpartum depression. Moving her body again was a big part of regaining her mental health. “Every day, I felt more like myself, more alive.”
Of course, exercise doesn’t represent a standalone treatment for serious conditions like anxiety and depression, though it can go hand in hand with other treatments, says Michele Kerulis, Ed.D., L.C.P.C., a professor of counseling and sport psychology at Northwestern University’s Family Institute. You should still seek help from a medical professional if you’re overwhelmed or thinking about hurting yourself or others. (Here’s how to find a therapist that works for you.) And if you’re in a crisis, you can text HOME to 741741, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or chat at crisistextline.org.
Even if you’re just a little down in the dumps, movement can lift you up. A short-term boost of endorphins often follows a run or high-intensity interval session.
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 this physical activity, you’re taking that one step further in managing health issues,” Carter says.
16. You created space for yourself in a tumultuous time.
“We’re living in a year, 2020, where we are bombarded with news, information, and traumatic experiences—people are experiencing deep traumas within their life, within their communities,” Carter says. “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. For Townsend, too, one sign of a successful session is that time flies by: “You’re not looking at your watch,” he says. “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.
Townsend thrives on the vibe of collective movement and aims to create visible space for people of color, the queer community, and others who don’t always see themselves represented in boutique fitness. Even in smaller classes with masks, he feels deeper bonds with others in the studio.
But 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.
For her latest workout challenge, LaShae enlisted her husband to film videos with her, something she says not only brought them closer but has also inspired other men to sign on. 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, Carter says.
19. You got in touch with music.
Studies show cranking up some music can help you work out longer and harder with less effort. Beyond that, lyrics can also reinforce powerful social messages, something Townsend’s long kept in mind when building playlists for his classes.
Since returning to the studio post-pandemic, he’s placed a premium on songs projecting empowerment and inclusivity—for instance, “My Love Is Your Love” by Whitney Houston. “I’m intentional with the messages that I want to get across around community and support and love, bringing those topics to light,” he says.
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, Carter says. 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,” Kerulis says. “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.”