There’s a saying that the final two reps in your workout are where the real change happens. That’s a motto I try to keep in mind every time I train, ensuring I squeeze out the final reps of my exercises. The problem, for me, isn’t necessarily knowing when I’m finished with my reps, but when I’m finished with my workout.
Take the other day: I’d done a good lower body workout. I’d completed three compound lifts – even getting a PB on a set of lunges. I walked away from the barbell thinking, ‘I guess I could go home now’. But I glanced at the hamstring curl machine, the kettlebells and the dumbbells and stopped. Had I really finished my workout, or was I just satisfied with doing ‘enough’?
Much like parties, it’s hard to know when to stay and when to leave the gym. Getting it right is where you’ll get the most out of your training – working hard enough for your body to keep adapting and improving, but not so hard you injure yourself or wear yourself out.
“There is very little research to show that training at 100% during every session is beneficial; in fact, there’s far more out there explaining why it’s counterproductive,” says Lianna Swan, personal trainer at fitness app Shreddy. In some ways, this actually makes things harder, because where exactly is the line? It’s a question I put to experts, and have thought about myself.
How do you know when you’ve done ‘enough’ exercise?
By following a structured plan, you’re much less likely to question the end of your session, says personal trainer Emma Obayuvana. “I set myself a plan of the exercises I want to follow, and I get in and out. I would say that finding a plan means you don’t have to worry about the structure and end point,” she says.
Any good training programme will usually be tested by a professional – or multiple – to ensure that it’s challenging enough without rendering you floor-bound. If you don’t have a proper plan to follow, you can use Swan’s suggestion of performing a couple of compound exercises, followed by a few accessory movements, and a finisher. For example:
Leg extension drop set
If you prefer circuits or more cardio-based workouts, you can always choose to follow an AMRAP – as many rounds as possible – style workout. Set yourself a timer and work until it goes off. Then you know it’s done.
And a note on time: more is not more in strength training. A good workout can be done within 30 minutes, so clock watching isn’t necessary. In fact, a 2018 paper found that less than 45 minutes of exercise a week lead to “marked increases in strength and endurance”. The study, in Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise, found that just three, 13-minute weekly sessions over an eight-week period led to “gains that are similar to that achieved with a substantially greater time commitment.” Researchers did note that longer training led to more muscle growth, but it’s important to remember that no high-intensity exercise over 90 minutes is really ever recommended – especially without food.
Most importantly for me – a gym goer but not an athlete – is how much time I can actually carve out in my day. Sometimes, my schedule won’t allow that extra round of exercises even if I and my body want to do them. While it’s annoying, I don’t think that’s a problem: outside of the gym is the rest of my life, and often that life isn’t compatible with long, drawn-out sessions.
“I’m a strong believer in leaving some ‘reps in reserve’ when it comes to training,” says Swan. “If you’re someone who trains every day, or most days, waking up with DOMS and being super sore can sometimes be off-putting.”
That means none of us should be hobbling out of the gym, but “training at between 60-80% of your max”. In real terms, that means choosing a weight that you can just about complete with your chosen number of reps. “Perhaps you could push for an extra one or two, but no more than that. This pushes your body and your muscles out of their comfort zone and progressively overloads them, but without fully fatiguing yourself,” Swan explains.
If you feel that you can’t complete any more exercises after your first few compound lifts, you’ve probably gone too hard at the start. If you finish your workout feeling as though your body actually has a lot more in the tank, you may want to try and push yourself a little closer to that 80%.
Your workouts aren’t only about what your body is capable of, but also how ready your brain is to be challenged. On that day that I was ready to leave after doing three exercises, there was a little niggle in my brain that told me to complete one final superset – so I did, and I left knowing that I’d done the perfect amount. But there have also been times when the voice telling me to leave has won.
I don’t agree with the statement “you never regret a workout” (because I think that this fails to emphasise the importance of rest) but I do believe that you shouldn’t leave a workout with any regrets. I don’t want to walk away knowing inside me that I could have done the finisher I chose to skip, but I equally don’t want to be sat at my desk so tired from my training that I regret going too hard. Tuning into what future you wants is a good way to know if you’re truly done, finishing too soon or have gone too hard.
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).