Chasing a Feeling - Why Every Workout Shouldn't Feel Like a 10

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“That workout killed me!” 

I’ve heard that statement many times. Often times that declaration is a badge of honor. They pushed themselves to the limit, probably experienced some unpleasant things going on with their body during the workout, and really felt that they had achieved something from the training session. And they very well may have… for that particular session.

Chasing fatigue has become way too accepted and working out to exhaustion has become entirely too commonplace in fitness culture. At COVAL Fitness in Ann Arbor, want to educate you a bit on why that is okay, in some instances, but most of the time isn’t necessary and, in most cases, detrimental to your long-term progress. This is important information if you’re looking for private personal training in Ann Arbor. You want to feel your workout – but it shouldn’t always kill you.

Stress & How It Affects You:

Since training is a stressor applied to the body, there needs to be appropriate means applied for recovery. Like training, managing work, relationships, finances, sleep, and your social life can all create stress on the body if not properly handled (which the majority don’t’ handle at least one of those life measures very well). These additional stressors inhibit your body’s ability to recover, hence why we put such an emphasis on nutrition, sleep, & stress management. Couple some of these different stressors together and the result is your body is going to be capable of varying levels of maximal performance on a daily basis.

Think about it like this:

Week 1:

You go into the gym on a Monday morning you had a great training session the Friday before.  Saturday morning was some light errands, the afternoon relaxing and reading a book, and the evening spent with your spouse and a nice dinner downtown. Sunday was much of the same, except you swam at a low intensity for 45 minutes. You go in feeling refreshed Monday morning and crush your workout.

Week 2: 

You go into the gym on a Monday morning. Again, the previous Friday you had a great training session to set you up for what you thought was going to be a nice, relaxing weekend. But right before you left work on Friday, your boss let you know that you needed to put together a big sales presentation for first thing Monday morning. Okay, so you’re a little bit stressed. Anxiety is rising. You will just enjoy the weekend until Sunday afternoon and then start your work on your presentation. Saturday comes and your spouse sees that you forgot to do the two loads of laundry you promised to do. This turns into a fight and only escalates as the day continues to go on. You two had planned dinner for Saturday night downtown, but instead, you two cancel plans. You go out with friends instead and have four beers and greasy, bar food. You get to bed at 2 AM; still stressed out from the fight and in worse shape because of diet. 

You wake up and feel exhausted from the stress of the sales presentation that you haven’t started, fighting with your spouse, and lack of sleep and poor nutrition. But that sales presentation isn’t going to finish itself. You stay up until 1 AM making sure that it is perfect and ready to go. The alarm goes off at 6 AM and it is time to hit the gym for an awesome training session! Right?!?! 

Yeah, probably not.  If you’re expecting that you’re at bare minimum going to produce the same level of performance as you did in week 1, and get the same or a more positive adaptation from the training session, then you’re sorely mistaken. It is probably best to scale back, keep the loads light, moving fast, shorten up the training session, and fatigue minimal. You’re in this for the long haul, not just right now.

This is why it is so key that you listen to your body, push it to the max when it is ready to go, and back off when it is not. Continuing to push the threshold for too long (I use that term relatively speaking.  “too long” could be a week for some, or even minutes during an actual session) could result in your body letting you know that it is not happy in the form of injury, sickness, and/or decreased performance.

How Should We Measure It?

If you’re undergoing high-intensity private personal training, there should be some sort of measure to gauge your session, as each training session should complement each one another. The sum of the training sessions should produce your desired result (i.e. weight loss, increase in strength, etc.).  One simple solution that we like to use at COVAL Fitness is asking clients about their RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion) - how difficult they perceived the session for the main lifts and the session overall. We will also gauge where we are at based on how many “reps in the tank” the client estimates they had left for a particular lift so that we, as coaches, can know whether we should bump up the weight, keep the client at that particular load, or decrease the weight on the bar. Both are simple, yet effective measures. 

Below are some examples:

RPE (session)
9 or 10 = mentally and physically spent.  I might feel a little worse than when I came in.  I want to go home, eat, and rest.

7 or 8 = the workout was challenging, but I feel like I have a little bit left in the tank.  I feel better than when I came in.

5 or 6 = I broke a sweat, maybe felt challenged at times, but overall that wasn’t too bad and I feel much better than when I came in.

< 5 = that workout was super easy.  This may have been an “off-day” session where I worked on mobility, core, or movement variability.

RPE (set)

10 = maximal effort.  No reps left in the tank.

9 = 1 rep left in the tank.

8 = 2-3 reps left in the tank.

7 = 4 reps left in the tank.

6 = bar velocity was high throughout the set.  No variance in speed from the first rep to last rep.

< 5 = insignificant

Reps Left In The Tank

We will ask this question to get a gauge on the client’s level of effort with their strength work.  This will help give us a good indicator of approximate % of their 1 rep max for the particular lift.  We like to use this adapted Prilepin’s Table created by Mladen Jovanovic to determine what % of 1RM the client is working at for a particular lift.  We like to stay in the “near max exertion (NME)” or “hard exertion (HE)” range when building strength.

COVAL Fitness - Private personal training in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Credit:  Mladen Jovanovic,, 2014

Closing Thoughts:

Clear communication, understanding that our bodies are going to have varying abilities day-to-day, and using simple, subjective measures leave us with the ability to ensure that our clients are continually making progress from session-to-session, month-to-month, and year-to-year. Make sure that you understand what your body is capable of, and that going all out for that RPE of 10 probably is not the best idea for your long-term progress.

If you would like to get a better understanding of the stress response, then we encourage you to take a look at Hans Selye’s “General Adaptation Syndrome” and the “Fitness-Fatigue Model”.

Looking for private personal training in Ann Arbor? Questions from today’s post?  Feel free to give us a call at 734-436-4347 or Contact Us to schedule your assessment and download our Free 21-Day Kickstart Program!

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