Exercise shouldn’t feel horrible—although it can often feel hard. It’s tempting to think of soreness or sweat as a sign of a good workout, but neither of those really tell you whether what you’re doing is improving your health or making progress toward your goals. Instead, look at some of these measures.
Can you do more than last month?
Don’t compare today’s workout to yesterday’s, but do compare it to something you did a few weeks, or months, or even years ago.
Why not yesterday’s? First, because strength can vary from day to day for a variety of reasons, including how you’ve been eating, how well you slept, and your mood or stress levels that day.
But also, importantly: Whether you realize it or not, each hard workout leaves you with you a little bit of fatigue that you carry with you for the next few days. You can still work out and make progress during this time, but your objective performance might decrease. So, maybe you managed 60 pounds for a certain lift last week when you felt fresh, but today you only got 55. That’s totally fine, and doesn’t mean that you’ve gotten weaker.
Instead, compare yourself to how you did a few weeks back. Are you lifting 55 pounds now, whereas last month you could barely manage the 45-pound empty bar? Did you run for 30 minutes continuously today, when last month you had to take several walking breaks to make it through the same amount of time? That’s progress!
Are you putting in the time and being consistent?
Maybe you can’t compare yourself to last month because back then you were doing totally different exercises—or none at all. Remember that making progress is all about staying consistent.
Putting in the time is itself a victory. I’ve come to believe it’s the most important accomplishment you can reach for, because if you’re consistent, progress will find you. You can even combine this point with the prior one: Are you more consistent now than you were last month?
Are your minimums going up?
Something I’ve come to appreciate in weightlifting, a sport that requires technique and focus in addition to pure strength, is that your good days can be really good, but they may also be rare.
My coach likes to remind me that the real sign of progress is not setting new PRs, but bringing up the minimum you can lift on a given day. I snatched 54 kilos once, but I don’t know when I’ll be able to snatch that again. On the other hand, I can get up into the high 40s with consistency; I did 48 on Tuesday and 49 last Friday. That’s a huge improvement from just a few months ago, when 42 was a lot for me.
This is really just another way of comparing progress over time, but it’s an especially satisfying one if you’ve been training for a while. I remember when deadlifting two plates was a pie-in-the-sky goal. Then I remember hitting it for a PR. Then I remember doing it for reps. These days, it’s just a warmup that I hit on the way up to my working weight for the day.
In running, you might notice your best mile time turn into your 5K race pace. You might see a 30-minute 5K go from a holy shit, I did that? moment to a routine thing you do when your program calls for a tempo run.
Or if you do a workout video with dumbbells, you might start out using five-pounders, and later on discover that you can stick with eight pounds throughout the whole video. Don’t worry so much about what you do on your best day, but notice when something becomes easy to do regularly.
Is your form better?
It’s still progress if you’re doing something better than you did before, even if you didn’t bump up your numbers. Are you squatting deeper? Getting your hips square every time in Warrior 1?
Any type of exercise that depends on technique is one in which improving your technique is a legit accomplishment. The work that goes into technique or mobility improvements is easy to discount. Just because it’s small doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. Once again, this is something you may notice more over time than during a single workout, but small tweaks really add up.
Do you feel great?
Not only do you not have to feel horrible, you can also feel great after a workout. Have you ever finished a workout feeling like you had more energy than when you started? It can happen! Especially if you accept that a workout can feel good, and that you don’t have to chase suffering.
Exercise can feel good in the moment. It’s also wonderful to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment afterward, especially if you hit a PR or noticed one of these other signs of progress.
The positive effects of a workout can also last throughout the day. Exercise can lead to better sleep, better mood over time, and the ability to calm symptoms of anxiety or depression.
An improvement in your mood or mental health is absolutely a valid response to exercise—and is honestly a better gauge of whether your time was well spent than whether you finished feeling like you wanted to collapse and die. (It’s also completely valid to feel both of those things at the same time.)