How to Know if Your Exercise Program Is Working

Lauren Bedosky
by Lauren Bedosky
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How to Know if Your Exercise Program Is Working

Most of us start an exercise program in hopes of seeing positive change. Day after day, we put in the work and trust results will follow. Yet, sometimes we wonder if our efforts are leading us in the right direction. Thankfully, there are several easy ways to determine if you’re actually making progress with your exercise regimen — or just running in place.

Before you worry about whether or not you’re making progress, here are some things to consider:

First, it’s important to clarify your goals from the outset so you can be sure your training is focused on the type of improvements you’re looking to make. Whether you’re looking to improve cardiovascular endurance, lose weight or nail your first pullup, get clear on your goal early so you stay on-course and know what metrics to track.

Second, keep in mind that — depending on your goal and current level of fitness — it can take weeks (or even months) to see significant improvements. Strength gains, for example, can occur within 6–8 weeks, though beginners tend to see improvements more quickly than intermediate and advanced exercisers, says Amanda Dale, MA, a personal trainer, nutritionist and wellness coach.

For weight loss, you’ll want to allow for at least two weeks of consistent effort. However, if you have a lot of weight you’re trying to lose, you’ll likely see big drops in the beginning, with losses slowing down as you get closer and closer to your goal weight.

7 SIGNS YOU’RE MAKING PROGRESS

  1. You can perform more repetitions of a strength exercise using the same weight or you can lift more weight than you could before.
  2. You can run, walk or bike the same distance faster than before, or you can go for greater distance.
  3. You’re no longer sore after a particular workout.*
  4. Your clothes feel looser/fit better.
  5. You have more energy.
  6. You’re losing inches off your hips and waist.
  7. You can perform the same high-intensity interval training (HIIT) routine faster or with heavier resistance.

* Soreness (or lack thereof) can be a tricky method for gauging progress, as you certainly don’t want to be sore after every workout. “It’s OK not to be sore, but if you originally were really sore and then after a week or two you’re not sore anymore and you’re not getting results, then [your routine] needs to be changed,” says Stephanie Mansour, a Chicago-based personal trainer and owner of Step it up With Steph. So, take soreness into account alongside other progress indicators.

A SURPRISING OMISSION

You may have noticed there was no mention of a scale on the list of progress indicators. This is because a scale isn’t always the best way to measure weight loss, especially if you’ve added strength training to your routine. In fact, you may notice the number on the scale go up or hold steady once you start strength training. Why? “Because muscle weighs more than fat,” Mansour says. So, feel free to weigh yourself, but make sure you’re also taking waist and hip measurements.

Along the same lines, it may be helpful to take subjective metrics (i.e., mood, energy) into account when gauging your progress. “I really encourage people to look at the whole picture,” Mansour says. For weight loss, this could include the number on the scale and the waist and hip measurements, as well as sleep quality, appetite and/or overall mood and energy.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU’RE NOT MAKING PROGRESS

If you hit a plateau, and you stop seeing results after at least two weeks of consistent effort, it may be time to change your routine. Luckily, it doesn’t take much to kickstart your results again. Here are several strategies Mansour recommends:

  1. Change the order of the exercises if you’re performing a strength or HIIT routine.
  2. Switch up your go-to cardio activity or try a different cardio machine. For example, if you usually hop on the elliptical, try the bike, stairclimber or rowing machine instead.
  3. If you like your existing cardio routine, simply increase your speed or crank up the incline or resistance level for 30 seconds. Do this a few times throughout your workout.
  4. Add in an extra set or two when performing a strength or HIIT routine.
  5. Add 5–10 minutes to your cardio workout.
  6. Change your strength equipment (i.e., instead of dumbbells, use resistance bands and cable machines).
  7. Slow down or speed up your reps when performing strength exercises.

There are many other ways to tweak your routine, so get creative. However, if you find you’re bored with your existing routine, and small changes don’t make a difference, you may need to completely overhaul your routine.

About the Author

Lauren Bedosky
Lauren Bedosky

Lauren is a freelance fitness writer who specializes in covering running and strength training topics. She writes for a variety of national publications, including Men’s HealthRunner’s WorldSHAPE and Women’s Running. She lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, with her husband and their three dogs.

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