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How to Gauge I'm Working Hard Enough?

I started up a strength program about 2 months ago. I think I’m on the right track based on the program and diet details here. But, my one question is: how to gauge whether I’m working hard enough? I’m 52. 5’9", 140 lbs. The squat part of my program is 5 sets, 10 reps at 120 lbs. (85% body weight) rest interval of 2 minutes. Same numbers for straight leg deadlift. The rest of the program is full body, classic compound lifts, weight adjusted per exercise: bench press 90, row 80, OHP 60, 5x10 pull ups. Abs are separate 5x25, 1 min. rest, M-F.

How do I know if this is hard enough? For the squats the last two reps of set 4 and 5 have that “can I come back up?”, slow to get to the top feeling. The two days rest I take, I’m quite stiff in the mornings. I feel like it’s hard work, but how else can I gauge it? I’m hung up on the (low) weights, because I’m lightweight, so I focus on body weight percentages.

Evaluate by outcome. Are you getting the results you want?

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Like TP says, stick with what you think is right and see if you improve.

If you don’t have that kind of patience / long term mindset, then a short term clue for me is hunger. When I’m training hard I’m so much hungrier, all the time.

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Clues like a “hunger gauge” is what I had in mind. That’s a good one, and I have noticed this in the mornings. I need a few more months to know if I making real changes. At this point changes have been marginal.

Like these guys mentioned, results are a big indicator. If you’re a beginner and things are not changing, you’re not doing it correctly.

After that, you can start to examine your Training Volumes.

If you’re new to training, and you’re doing a full body routine, you should be getting About 15 work sets per workout. If you’re doing 35 sets per workout You Are Patty Caking Many of Those Sets.

You can also take a look at how long your workouts take. This is pretty controversial, but your training should last About 60 minutes. If your workouts are taking longer than that, there is probably a lot of fluffy BS going on.

You can also look at the past advices of other coaches and lifters going back 70 years. Everyone says do full body 3 times per week. If you’re a beginner and you’re following a full body routine 5 days per week, the workouts are not hard enough.

I’m doing 6 lifts 5x10, so 30 sets. Rather than fluffing it, it could be too much. And if it is too much, then lack of progress will result. That seems to be the essence of my dilemma.

I did a 1RM test 2 years ago with a lifter friend. My 1RM squat then was 145, 107% body weight. My current squatting of 120 5x10 then doesn’t seem like fluff. Although I should probably retest, because this the exrx calculator, indicates my 1RM has probably increased. It says 120x10 should be a 160 1RM. Regardless, whatever result I get for 1RM, my understanding is to then do 75% of that for 10 reps. Volume-wise should I do 3 days per week, 3 sets, 2-3 minutes rest between set? My first reaction to that is it’s too little and too much rest. But, then again if my 1RM does turn out to be higher, it could be harder than I expect.

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Yes!

You’re 100% on the right track. You’re doing too much, so you aren’t Progressing.

If you do Less work, it will feel Easier. Because it’s Easier, you get the privilege of adding more weight to the bar to make it feel Harder. This Harder work stimulates the muscles to grow.

3 x 10 with 75% is where you start. The idea is to gradually push those weights up and still get 3 x 10, with more weights.

3 sets, 3 days per week sounds perfect. Feel free to do 1-3 warm up sets, ramping up to your harder work sets.

Rest periods are sort of individual. Some guys like longer or shorter. 3 minutes seems like forever to me. 2 minutes is probably OK if that feels right to you. One version of the 3 times per week, full body plan uses lighter weights and the shortest possible rest periods on one of the training days.

OP - fellow 52 yr old here. What exactly are your goals? You don’t really state any, but you do call out areas you’re hung up on (effort, something measurable, BW %s, time). You’ve got to have an idea where you’re trying to get to in order to gauge progress and you have lots of good advice to look at with regards to effort, time efficiency, and volume above.
If I may, I would recommend a program like Paul Carter’s Mass Training for you. I’ve had alot of success personally with that and success with a couple of new lifters. It’s a 4 day split with 1 main lift a day. The beauty is the main lift is based on a weight that YOU can do for 8 reps. You don’t change the weight each week, but try and beat the previous week’s rep number - with the goal to eventually get a strong 15 reps before going up in pounds. In addition, you have a 50% set, which is, after 60s rest, you’re back at it trying to hit at least 50% of the reps you just did or more. This gives you three rep goals each day: 1st set Rep PR, 2nd set Rep PR, and a total rep PR. If you’re hitting rep PRs, you’re working hard enough. The rest periods drive your time in the gym. It’s a simple (4 lifts a day) and efficient (done in under 60 minutes) 6 week program with daily goals to hit that is recovery friendly and scales to one’s abilities. Sounds like what you’re looking for in the gym - and hits all the “issues” you list.

OK, cool, I’m on the right track. I’ll try scaling back, and track that progress. As things move along I can develop a better sense of cues and feel. My previous workouts were endurance based so I think I’m just adapting to a new “feel.” Thanks.

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Goals. At a basic level it’s about fighting the deterioration of aging. But I’m young enough to still be able to set a real strength goal. Repping squats at body weight seems do-able and is an easy concept to grasp. 10-15 pounds of real muscle gain would be nice, but that seems more elusive, I’m the skinny type. I decided to commit to a one year plan, see what results I get, and then take it from there. Perhaps modest, but I’d rather that instead of unrealistic. I just want to be sure I avoid stupid mistakes that could undermine me from the start.

@mikecurtis1 Pretty sure you didn’t answer this question, and it is an important one.

The best way to tell if something is working or not is to truthfully answer this. If what you are doing is working you will see some sort of progress. Either you are adding weight to the bar or reps to the sets, or resting less or moving the bar faster, or looking better. There are lots of ways to determine progress. I am not sure whether you wrote your own program or someone wrote it for you but you have already got some good advise from Flats and Darth on either changing what you are doing or picking a program from a coach following it and measuring progress.

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Respect

More respect. What is the real strength goal? To rep your BW in squat? 10 times?

Except you weigh 140; and you’re doing less than body weight (75-85%) 5 sets of 10, 3 times a week? Maybe goblet squat that as a supplemental movement to break it up but my knees would hate me for that much squatting a week

Not at your size if you worked hard, had a good program, and ate well. Even at 52.

What’s the plan? Do you have a workout laid out? There are several solid strength based plans here and on the interwebs.

At 52, I know I only have a finite number of reps left due to age and joint wear and tear. I don’t think I’d take that approach myself if I knew there were proven plans out there that would challenge me and help me achieve what I really want. The clock isn’t stopping.

Full circle…what are the results you WANT? Strength goal but not really defined, size increase but not really committed, try BW% squats for a year and see what happens, modest vs unrealistic (what is unrealistic to you?)…

Like having undefined goals and dipping your toe in all the areas above? John Meadows just passed at 49. We’re 52. Don’t take a year to test drive something you’re defining yourself as modest. Your original question was gauging if you’re working hard enough! If you have a solid plan go for it but it feels like you’re feeling your way through it cautiously and uncertain as a beginner. Be confident. Define what you specifically want to achieve in a year and find a program(s) that will help get you there. If you want it, take it.

“…you karate ‘Guess So’…squickck, just like grape.” - Mr Miyagi

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You’re right, it’s a different Feel than an endurance workout.

You’re trying to stimulate your body to make a totally different kind of changes. Instead of building new capillaries and increasing mitochondria you want to build up muscles.

Compared to endurance training you want the feeling of Distress to come on much sooner and more localized. Make the mindset change to challenge your muscles more, with less work.

Lots of follow up questions from different members! Let me try to respond to them all in one reply.

Am I getting the results I want? I say tentatively, yes. But, I’m only about 2-3 months in, and I adjusted the program in the beginning. Overall, using squat as a gauge, I think I feel my strength increase. I complete the sets more easily than when I started.

This article Progressive Overload Works, Unless You Do This | T NATION and its point about “double progression model” is very much the idea I had in mind for progression. Although I specifically was thinking I would try progressing from 6 reps up to 10, and when I could finish 3x10 with good form, feeling strong, add more weight, and start again from 6 reps up to 10, then add weight, and so on. Basically, train on the current weight until it’s “easy”, and only then progress weight by a small increment that makes it “hard” again. I had thought to add 5 lbs for weights of 100 or less, and add 10 for those over 100. But the article says for any weight up to 450 lbs, only increase by 5 lbs. So I will do that.

FWIW, I practice piano and I am already fully aware that when training anything you train on your weakness. It’s the same concept with weight lifting. You must reset something - weight, reps/sets, rest time - to make things hard again, or you won’t progress. Only effort thoughtfully applied to a weakness will result in improvement.

There were questions about my program. Based on the advice here I have already change my sets/reps from 5x10 to 3x10, for 3 times per week. Full body each day. Also, I was very concerned to get a good balance of weight proportional for each exercise. Using numbers from strengthlevel.com, I came up with these rough proportions between main barbell lifts:

Deadlift 120%
Back squat 100%
Romanian/straight leg deadlift 100%
Bench press 75%
Bent over row 66%
Overhead press 50%
Pull/chin ups with body weight

Those are the proportions, the actual pounds would be set from 75% of 1RM for a 3x10 program.

So, the final program is:

Three days per week, 2 min rest between sets lower body, 1 min upper body

Squat 3x10, 120 lbs
Straight leg deadlift 3x10, 120lbs
Overhead press 3x10, 60 lbs
Pull/chin ups 3x10, body weight (I use three grip variations)
Bench press 3x10, 90 lbs
Bent over row 3x10, 80 lbs.

5 days, M-F, I also do:

Various stretches with emphasis on hamstring and hip flexibility
Situps M W F / leg lifts T Th, 5x25, super set with…
One leg calf raises, 5x12, each leg plus 100 toe raises
6 different neck movements, body weight/hand resistance, 2x20

I don’t think this is a vaguely defined plan. It seem like a classic plan I find from many sources. It’s all classic barbell lifts, 2 exercises each for push, pull, legs. Compound and functional movements.

A particular observation at two months in is I am weaker on squat and pull ups compared to the rest. So an immediate goal is to bring those two exercises up to the same “ease” level as the rest and then progress weights up proportionally for all.

The article about “double progression” says to not set arbitrary increase points every few weeks. Only increase when the “ease” of reps with good form “earns” an increase. I’m completely on board with that. However, I did think that I could expect to make an increase every 6 to 8 weeks, if I keep up with the program, no skipped day, good diet, good recovery. 5 pounds each 8 weeks would be about 6 progression over a whole year, 5x6=30, so in the long term I could expect to add 50 pounds to my squat and go from 120 to 170 for 3x10.

I imagine that many on this forum warm up with 170 lbs! So I call this a modest goal. But, personally, if I achieve this, I will be amazed. Regardless of how impressive it may or may not be, I don’t think it vaguely or timidly defined. I set my starting level based on 1RM and progression will follow the “double progression” principle. You “earn” your progression only with hard work, not an arbitrary year end goal. “Hard work” then is the key, and that is what brings things full circle back to my original question: how to gauge how hard I am working. I think @FlatsFarmer helped set me on the right track in that regard. My volume was too high.

Bodybuilding is not my goal. “Athletic physique” seems to be what people call the appearance I want. But I already have that. According to the US Navy Method my body fat is about 10%. My physique is like a slightly thicker Jared Leto. I welcome and expect muscle gain, but I think of it more as a side effect that will come with the strength gains. If I use a tape measure or scale, it’s just to track changes. I don’t have goals like “add two inches to my biceps.” In terms of body transformation, the stories of actors getting ripped for action roles, like Robert Downey Jr., Hugh Jackman, etc., are a source of inspiration.

So, the main goal is dedication and earning the strength progressions, muscle gain is a side benefit, long term goal is a life style to stay strong while aging.

I hope I covered all the questions that came up from everyone. I really appreciate the interest and advice. Let me know if I should add extra details.

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This is a great attitude. The only comparator in this game is yourself. Good on you.

What’s up? How’s it going?

It’s going well, thank you. It’s clear now that volume was the problem. The theme has been changing my mind set and getting the feel to switch from endurance to strength training. To put it in numbers: I weigh 140 lbs. Basic program is squat, s.l. deadlift, b.b row, o.h. press, pull up, weighted push up 3 sets each, Mon, Wed, Fri. For a while I was squatting 120 lbs x10 reps (1RM = 160 lbs) and that initially felt heavy. But, reconsidering the strength over endurance aspect I changed that to squatting 150 lbs x5 reps (1RM = 169 lbs.) That transition to 150 was first a mental threshold, I simply had never trained at body weight amounts. After two weeks I can feel my body adapting to the amount. I actually added an extra squat set to prioritize that lift. Weight gain has been modest, about 4 lbs, but most of that seems to be from the recent change to higher weight lifts at x5 reps. Recovery seems good, I can keep up with 3 workouts per week. I plan to progress reps up from 5 to 7, then progress weight by 10 lbs, resetting to 5 reps. Now things are feeling dialed in right. It seems I just needed some time and experience to get the different feel of strength versus endurance training.

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That’s awesome man! It’s cool that you were able to adjust to the new style or training.

4 pounds gained in a month is Solid progress. Keep it up.

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This and this:

Will get you pretty strong. I have no idea how they will interact with your endurance. But it will add muscle. And strength.