In response to a few questions I’ve received recently and reflecting on recent discussions with clients, the following are a few thoughts on workout performance versus actual progress:
A Workout Is Not A Competition
The purpose of a workout is to stimulate your body to produce improvements in functional ability (muscular strength, cardiovascular and metabolic conditioning, flexibility, etc.) without causing harm in the process. It is not to try to beat your previous repetition count or weights (quantitative workout performance).
If you are more focused on the repetition count or time under load or the weight you are using than how you use it (quantitative performance) you will tend to use much looser form. Because of this you might appear to progress faster on paper, but your workouts will be less effective and real progress will be slower.
If you focus on the real objective, on making each exercise and the overall workout as intense as possible (qualitative performance) you will tend to maintain much stricter form. Because of this you may not appear to progress as quickly on paper, but your workouts will be more effective and real progress will be faster.
Your numbers will improve over time despite your best efforts to train as intensely and achieve momentary muscular failure as efficiently as possible if you are really getting stronger and better conditioned .
Consider Workouts And Exercises In Context
A workout is not an event separate from the rest of your life. Your workouts affect and are affected by everything else you do.
Within a workout every exercise has systemic and local effects which affect your ability to perform subsequent exercises (and can have a psychological effect on you during preceding exercises). Changes in the resistance used for a particular exercise or the number of repetitions or time under load performed, the exercise order, the rest time between exercises, etc. can all affect the performance of other exercises as well.
When evaluating both quantitative and qualitative workout or exercise performance you need to do so in the contexts of your life and of the workout as a whole.
This is why you should make notes on your workout chart or keep a separate journal with notes relevant to overall workout and individual exercise performance so you can evaluate them in context later.
Individual Workouts Are Not Reliable Gauges Of Progress
Do not confuse changes in workout to workout performance with progress. Real progress is improvements in functional ability, not numbers going up on paper.
While individual exercise and overall workout performance is largely determined by your current level of functional ability, it is also influenced by other factors that can vary significantly between workouts. Because of how much these factors and their effect on workout performance can vary you need to evaluate your progress based on changes in performance over several weeks, not on a workout to workout basis.
Don’t freak out and assume you are overtraining because you don’t go up one or more repetitions or increase the weight on every exercise, every time you train. It is unrealistic to expect to be able to do so, especially as you get closer to the limits of your genetic potential. You will have good workouts and you will have bad workouts, but as long as you’re focusing on the real goal during your workouts and your average performance over time is improving there is nothing to worry about.
Workout Performance Versus Goal-Specific Measurements
A workout is not an end in itself. You exercise to stimulate improvements in or maintain some level of functional ability, and for the associated benefits to your health and physical appearance. All of these are means to yet more ends, such as improved ability to perform thus derive greater enjoyment from other physical activities, increased physical attractiveness and greater social success, etc.
Your exercise program should be evaluated and modified based on it’s effect on your achievement of your end goals, such as increase muscular size, a reduction in body fat, or better performance in some sport, vocational, or recreational activities.
Although muscular strength and size are related, the proportions vary between individuals based on genetic factors. A few people can make tremendous strength gains with little increase in size, even fewer people will make large gains in muscular size with only modest increases in strength, and most of us will be somewhere in between. If you are making regular strength increases but little muscular size gains it is mostly a matter of genetics, but you may also be compromising your progress by failing to eat sufficiently. Regardless of whether you are continuously going up in repetitions, time, or resistance during your workouts if you are not making progress towards your real goal you need to evaluate everything you’re doing and make changes where necessary. Conversely, if you have to buy new clothes every few months because of muscular size increases don’t worry if the numbers aren’t going up on paper as quickly as you would like, unless you are more concerned with strength than appearance.
While a proper exercise program is beneficial for fat loss, losing fat is almost entirely a matter of diet. It is difficult for many people to consistently improve workout performance while eating at a moderate calorie deficit over a long period of time, but as long as workout performance is not suffering considerably you shouldn’t worry about it as long as your body composition is steadily improving (if your workout performance is steadily getting worse you may be restricting your food intake too much).
If one of your exercise goals is to improve performance in another physical activity you need to plan your program around and evaluate it based on how it affects your goal of improving your performance of that activity, not the other way around.