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Ask LH: What's My Exercise Sweet Spot?

Dear Lifehacker,

I’ve recently hopped over the initial hump of getting myself exercising regularly, but I’m having trouble finding a balance between pushing myself too hard and not pushing hard enough. Is there a way to find a sweet spot where I’m working out hard enough, but not killing myself?

Sincerely,

Hard(ly) Working

Image: normanack.

Dear HW,

Finding that sweet spot can make or break a good exercise routine, but you’re right, it’s pretty hard to nail down. When you first start to work out, it’s almost impossible to gauge because everything you’re doing feels hard and as you get used to exercising you have to change your intensity to keep pace with your body’s expanding limits. Before we can understand where that sweet spot is we have to know what it feels like when you’re over or under worked. Let’s start by taking a look at what it feels like when you’re working too hard.

How To Know If You’re Working Too Hard

Pushing yourself too hard when exercising is not just a good way to hurt yourself, it’s also a sure-fire way to make you want to quit exercising altogether. When you’re in the moment you might not notice you’re pushing too hard, but some tell-tale signs post-workout point to over-exercise.

  • Your performance is suffering: If you feel like you can’t push yourself as hard as you could the last time you exercised it might mean you need to relax the intensity a little bit. Common symptoms during your workout might include: a shortness of breath, you can’t work out as long as usual, or worse, you’re in pain.
  • You suffer burnout the next day: We’ve talked about the negative effects of burnout in relation to jobs before and curiously, the same symptoms are a sign of overworking your body. If exercising isn’t making you feel better, you have a negative attitude towards it, you’re exhausted, or you’re not getting enough sleep then you’re burnt out. Essentially, if you’re not reaping the rewards of exercise you’re working too hard. If you’re at this point, take a day or two off from exercise and return with a light bout before going full-force again.

Of course, working too hard is just one of the problems with trying to find your sweet spot, the flipside is not working hard enough. Let’s look at how that might feel.

How To Know If You’re Not Working Hard Enough

The basic rule of thumb is that when you’re working out you should feel a little soreness the next day. If you’re not, you’re probably not working hard enough. We’ve shown you how to tell if your exercise routine is working before, but it can take a few weeks to see the results.

The real trick lies in how you feel in the moment and for that, you need to find a good intensity that works for you. Thankfully, that’s the exact way to find your sweet spot.

How To Get It Just Right

The key to finding a good sweet spot for exercising lies in your heart rate. The good thing about this is that it’s something you can test while you’re exercising so you don’t suffer from burnout or end up wasting your time from underworking. Three different tiers gauge your intensity: light, moderate and vigorous. For a traditional workout, you’re aiming for a moderate or vigorous intensity. Here’s how to estimate yours.

  • Light exercise intensity: This is when you’re hardly breaking a sweat and you don’t have noticeable changes in your breathing pattern. Something like a light walk around the neighbourhood is a good example of light exercise. This is 40 to 50 per cent of your maximum heart rate.
  • Moderate exercise intensity: This is when your breathing is fast and you might break a light sweat. A common indicator of this is if you can carry on a conversation, but can’t sing a song. This is 50 to 70 per cent of your maximum heart rate.
  • Vigorous exercise intensity: This is zone where your breathing is rapid, you’re sweating profusely and you can barely gasp out a few words. This 70 to 85 per cent of your maximum heart rate.

How do you find your heart rate zone? First you estimate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. Then you need to find your heart rate while you’re working out. Mayo Clinic has a very easy way:

  • Stop momentarily: Take your pulse for 15 seconds. To check your pulse over your carotid artery, place your index and third fingers on your neck to the side of your windpipe. To check your pulse at your wrist, place two fingers between the bone and the tendon over your radial artery – which is located on the thumb side of your wrist.
  • Multiply this number by 4 to calculate your beats per minute.

The basic premise is simple but easy to forget about when you’re in the heat of a workout. If your heart rate is too low, pick up the pace. If it’s too high, slow down a bit. The same goes for how your muscles feel in the moment. For instance, your legs should burn a little when you’re halfway through a jog, but they shouldn’t be in pain.

For strengthening exercises, it’s more difficult narrow in on. Many trainers suggest you pick a weight you can lift eight times for three sets comfortably. If you get to a point where you can do 12 lifts, it’s time to bump up the weight limit. Others suggest you start by picking a weight you can lift 15 times before you feel like you can’t lift any more. Both are good indicators you’re in your sweet spot for strengthening.

As always, everyone is a bit different and other factors, like diet and rest, play a key role in how a workout feels in the moment and afterward. Once you find your sweet spot don’t be surprised if you have to change up your intensity over time. As you get used to exercise and build muscles the process gets easier and you need to adapt and change your intensity. Image: Geert Schneider.

Cheers,

Lifehacker

PS Have any tricks of your own to getting a good workout without over or under exerting yourself? Share them in the comments.

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