How Hard Should I Train? Stay Between the Lines

You want to work hard enough to get results.  But not so hard that you get injured and laid up for six weeks – and there goes those results.  How hard you should train depends on three factors:

  1. The goal – Are you trying to lose weight or win a powerlifting competition?
  2. Your current level of activity – Consider the feasibility and safety of training 5 days a week if you’re currently doing next to nothing.
  3. How you feel that day – Probably not worth going for personal bests on days you’re stressed out and running on 3 hours sleep.

Based on these factors, I’ve created a graphic that depicts how I approach working my clients (each peak represents a bout of training):

Training - Stay Between the Lines

How Hard Should I Train? Stay Between the Lines

In fact, you could say this picture works with any pursuit in life – do too little and nothing happens.  Do too much and you burnout.  But to stay on topic (I’m good at going off topic, eh?), using the graphic as a guide, here are some tips to get the most of your exercise:

Are You Reaching Your Minimum Effective Dose?

Too many times I’ve seen people sitting on a recumbent bike, slowly pedaling while reading the paper and sipping a latte.  Or women doing 50 gazillion reps with 2 pound weights, and wonder why they aren’t getting any results.

If it doesn’t feel like work, it’s probably not.  That means you should be sweating and slightly out of breath.  Or you should feel like you could only do a couple extra reps above your target count (which should stay below 20, ideally less than 15).

Balance Your Days

If you worked extra hard one day, it’s probably best not to go balls to the wall the day after (unless you’re an experienced athlete).  Remember, what’s hard for one person is not necessarily the same for another.  This depends on you.

If you feel especially sore or achy the day after a workout, do some moderate cardio (not high intensity intervals) and stretching/foam rolling to promote recovery.  Or if it’s a lifting day, don’t go for maximum lifts.  Notice how harder exercise days in the picture are often followed up with lower intensity days.

Build Gradually

If you’re new, or just getting back into exercising after a long layoff, your minimum effective dose and upper tolerance are probably lower than you think – it doesn’t require 2 hour training marathons, 5 days a week.  The key is to build a sustainable routine that keeps your body, mind and joints feeling good.  As you get better, your minimum effective dose, and upper limit will increase along with getting stronger, looking better, etc.

What Happens Above the Upper Tolerance Line?

Mostly exhaustion, and potentially pain and overtraining syndrome.  As crazy as it sounds, pain is your best friend – it tells you when you’ve f’ed up.  Listen to it.  If it’s during a single training bout, it could be anything from delayed-onset muscle soreness (when you can’t move for a week and your affected muscles feel swollen and tender) to muscle strains that require a week or two to recover.

If you push yourself repeatedly right at that upper limit line, you may go over it on the second, third or fourth consecutive training day.  Your body is telling you it needs to recover – and if you don’t listen it can eventually result in chronic issues like tendonitis, cartilage tears, and arthritis.

This doesn’t mean you need to quit training altogether, just don’t do things that hurt.  If you have a recurring issue, get it checked out by a physical therapist or qualified fitness professional to make sure you’re moving correctly.

TELL ME: What do you think of the graphic?  Does it help put things in perspective for you?  It’s about as artistic as I get 🙂





  1. Love the graphic. I think it’d be good to make it clear earlier that each peak represents one day. Also, is it assuming that people are being active every single day? Does that include incidental exercise, like walking to the train – are those the lower days? Or does the line only refer to activities undertaken primarily for exercise – sports, running, gym stuff, fitness classes?

    • Great comments – I specifically did not give definitive timelines because those peaks could be every day for an athlete or every 3 days for the occasional gym-goer. I really wanted to get the point across that there are periods of higher intensity to create improvement, and then recovery in between – the length of which is determined by the intensity of the training compared to a person’s existing abilities. The line really depends on what creates a positive response to a person’s body. Someone who’s sedentary all day may get benefits from just walking to the subway, while a marathoner will likely not reach the minimum effective dose just by walking. It’s all relative 🙂

  2. I completely agree with what you’re saying about the upper tolerance line and how pain is your best friend. We should all be listening to what our body is trying to tell us.

    Our body and muscles need a break sometimes and overworking it will not do us any good.

    I have a friend who ignored the pain in his arm for a long time and continued to work out. Needless to say, he is now doing lots of physiotherapy and isn’t allowed to work out for a while.

    The graph is really helpful… I think everyone should take a look at it! I agree with what Becca said about making it more clear that each peak represents a different day, but it still really put things into perspective for me.

    • Thanks! I made the adjustments to the description based on your feedback and Becca’s. Hopefully your friend will be back in the gym soon, and will listen to his body moving forward! Sometimes it takes an injury to get someone to listen, unfortunately 🙁

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