Sweaty? Sore? What Makes a “Great” Workout?

Do you consider profuse sweating as a requirement before using the words “great workout” to describe the training session? Or do you like to check your calorie counting wearable before uttering “that was awesome!”? How about, “Now, that was just great” after learning something totally new? Oh, and I love this one: “I really feel yesterday’s workout.”

So, what is a “great” workout, really?

Here is my personal definition:

  • I feel more energy after the workout than when I started.
  • Most of the movements felt simple and easy to complete.
  • I feel no pain or soreness that day or following days.
  • It incorporates something I know I “need” (like mobility work!) and something I “want” (lots of pulls!).
  • It leaves me feeling like I need something to work on.
  • I did something well…I accomplished something.

Yes, I said it, or rather I DIDN’T say it. Being sore is not an indicator of a “great work out.” To me, soreness is a sign that I pushed too hard, worked an area that needed additional mobility or flexibility work, didn’t get enough sleep or rest that day or the prior day, or that my adrenals (stress hormones) are overloaded. And maybe a combination of all of them.

Let’s start with why we workout: is it mainly for fat loss, or is it for moving better, or is it a combination of both?  We often hear that losing weight (i.e., fat loss) is the number one reason why people workout.  So if you are working out to lose weight, let’s find out if the common indicators of a good workout (sweat, calories burned, and soreness) are really true.

Do you need to sweat or sweat profusely to burn calories?

The answer is NO.

Sweat is our body’s way of cooling itself. Some people sweat more than others, and some begin to sweat earlier in their training than others.

According to Mike Ryan, Assistant Professor of Exercise Science at Fairmont State University, the average person sweats between 0.8 liters (27 ounces—about the size of a large Slurpee) and 1.4 liters (47 ounces) during an hour of exercise. That’s equal to around one to three pounds of body weight per hour.

Ryan also gives us the big answer you’ve wanted to know: is sweat associated with calorie burn? No.

“Sweat rate has nothing to do with the rate that you burn fat or calories,” Ryan says. “An individual’s perspiration rate is largely dependent on their genetic make-up and how their body responds to heat stress.”

The amount we sweat varies depending on a bunch of factors: how many sweat glands you have (anywhere between 2 and 5 million); your resting body temp; the outdoor temperature; your fitness level; and, the exercise you’re doing.

Dr. Christopher Minson, co-director of the Exercise and Environmental Physiology Labs at the University of Oregon, says men perspire more than women, for example, because they are generally taller and bigger. Some research also concludes that testosterone can enhance sweating response, too.

Last, Jessica Matthews, Adjunct Kinesiology Professor at Point Loma Nazarene University says, “The truth is, no matter how much or little you sweat, it doesn’t always correlate to calories burned or how hard you’re working.”

Next up: Wearables. Do they calculate calories accurately and are they a valid indicator of a good workout? 

There are mounds of data about the inaccuracy of the calorie output of cardiovascular machines. The machine has to start with a basic calculation of an average person. Are you the average person? 😉 Yeah, probably not.

FYI, the elliptical gets the worst score for accuracy. I recently read a piece in a major fitness pub that people actually leaned over/folded completely on stair steppers because it was believed they would burn more calories in the hunched over position. Really?

An NBC Nightly News piece featured reporter Jeff Rossen testing Garmin, Fitbit, and Jawbone for accuracy in number of steps and in calories. Sadly, he found none of them were accurate, all three at least doubled the actual calories burned, and two of them came close to doubling the number of steps completed.

In response to this report, the three companies tested claimed the step trackers are designed to motivate individuals to lead a healthy lifestyle. In other words, the accuracy of the output of steps and calories is secondary. Using this data as an overall guide of how much you move, how well you sleep (FitBit is rated best), and how much you consume in a day may be your best bet.

Last, soreness. Is it an indicator of a good workout? 

Oh, the burn. And, now I “feel” my abs or my glutes or whatever.

Right?

Wrong.

DOMS, or Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness, is the pain and stiffness felt in your muscles after different or strenuous exercise. It tends to start as soon as 6 hours after and can last up through 72 hours.

DOMS used to be widely believed to be a buildup of lactic acid. Now, though, it is fairly well known this is not true. DOMS comes from inflammation caused by microscopic tears in the connective tissue that sensitize nociceptors and heighten the sensations of pain.  Nociceptors are sensory nerve cells that respond to damaging or potentially damaging stimuli and send signals to the spinal cord and brain.

In an environment in which we build muscle, or hypertrophy, three factors occur: 1) muscle damage, 2) mechanical tension, and 3) metabolic stress. However, muscle growth is possible without muscle damage. Therefore, DOMS is not an indicator of muscle growth, a calorie burn, or a “good workout.”

For some, it sends an almost euphoric feeling of accomplishment.  I caution you: soreness after every workout, or even most, can be an indicator of overuse, sleep deficiency, and a number of lifestyle issues that cumulatively can have lasting dangerous effects.

Now that we’ve found many of the common indicators of a good workout to be false. What is true? Next week we will investigate the components of what fitness experts agree is a good workout.

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In Strength,
Adrien