What Makes a Workout a “Tough” Workout?


When an exercise routine is at or near your physical maximum, you’ll call it tough.

It doesn’t matter what the exercises are or what kind of tools you use.

All that matters is one thing: intensity.

I was teaching a few years ago about my concepts regarding tissue healing as well as exercise principles. As I presented some of my ideas, a few of the participants questioned whether the exercises I created, based on what they saw, would be “intense” enough for their clients.

One of the students said, “Where’s the intensity? I don’t see how these will do much for anyone who’s serious about losing weight or getting really fit.”

“What does intensity mean to you? What would make my routines intense?” I asked.

“Well, for one thing, there’s no heavy loads, no Olympic lifts or sprints or explosive movements. Your exercises are just too simple to be intense.”

“I see. So intensity is a function of the tool or particular exercise then?” I asked.

“Well, yeah, I guess. I can just tell when something will be a hard exercise,” he replied.

“Alright. Let’s try this. Which exercise do you think is more intense – a barbell squat or a single leg squat with a dumb bell?”

“The barbell for sure,” he replied.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Well, because you can put a lot more load on a barbell and it makes your back and trunk and hips work harder,” he said.

“So, that sounds like your definition of intensity depends more on the load than the movement itself, yes?” I asked.

The student paused and then agreed. He thought that because my routines looked easy that they must not be intense.

What’s Intense?

If I ask you – “Is Crossfit an intense workout?”, what would you say?

My guess is, if you know anything about or have even heard of Crossfit, you’ll say yes without even having done a Workout of the Day (WOD) and that’s partly because of how Crossfit markets itself. According to Greg Glassman, the founder of Crossfit, it’s “constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement.”

But what if I ask you about Yoga? Is Yoga intense? For some people, absolutely it is; for others, not so much.

Intensity is not defined by the workout or the tools. Intensity is relative to the individual.

My first year of college basketball, I learned about intensity. We were doing windsprints – called “suicides”. You sprint from the baseline to foul line and back and then baseline to 3/4 line and back. Followed by baseline to the other 3/4 line then baseline to the opposite end foul line and finally baseline to baseline.

And it was against the clock.

After we had done about 10 of these, one of the guys on the team, a junior by the name of Marty, looked pale. Gasping for air, bent over, hands on his knees. Then he walks over to the bleachers and throws up.

I didn’t throw up. I was okay. Really tired no doubt but not THAT tired.

I think Marty would call the suicides beyond intense – bordering on insane.

How to Determine Intensity

A simple way to determine intensity is to use a Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE). The RPE is a scale, originally from 11 to 20 but variations include 1 to 10, where 10 represents exhaustion and 1 represents very, very mild fatigue.

To use the RPE, you give yourself a rating during and after your exercise. It’s surprisingly accurate too.

Here are a few examples.

  • You had the flu for a month. For the first two weeks, you were nearly bed bound. Now, having recovered, you decide to workout. And you discover that a routine you did three months ago with an RPE of 5, you can’t do at the same loads and repetitions at all.
  • Your friend encourages you to join him for his Crossfit workout in his garage. He’s going to do GI JANE (100 Burpee – Pull ups as fast as you can go. And here’s a video if you’re wondering what a Burpee-Pull Up is all about). You’ve never done a pull up before nor a burpee. After 60 seconds, you quit. Your friend finishes the routine in 15 minutes. For you, GI JANE was next to impossible. For him, it was a RPE of 9.
  • At the gym, you do 5 reps of a barbell squat with 95 lbs. You give yourself an RPE of 7. The guy next to you just cranked out 5 reps with 2oo lbs and is seemingly unfazed by it.

Here’s the problem with intensity. When you exercise, whether you’re a novice or a veteran, at well above your capacity or your ability to withstand the intensity, your risk of injury sky rockets. And it’s not just during the session but the next few sessions as well. When you overtax the central nervous system, which is what you do with routines of RPE ratings of 9 or 10, you need several days of rest to recover. Some people will just go right back at it after maybe one or two days off. But your nervous system, which is what determines your strength, is not ready. The result is a reduced ability to manage loads and movements.

You not only need intensity that lines up with your abilities but you also need to include certain components in your routine to get the most out of it.

For the best results, keep an eye on your RPE. Keep the REP in the 7-8 range at the most. And if an exercise routine looks too hard to you, it probably is; if it looks too easy, it might not be.