When to Take Your Intensity Up a Notch

If you feel like you’ve hit a plateau or you’re looking for a bigger fitness boost, it may be time to make your workout a little harder.

As you get fitter and stronger, your workouts may feel less challenging. That’s a sign of progress and a signal to make a change. “It’s time to bump up the intensity,” says NASM-certified personal trainer Danny Saltos.

Common Signs

If you’ve been exercising regularly for at least 6 weeks, you may be ready for the next level. Look for these signs that you’re ready for more of a challenge:

  • Your workouts feel easy. On a scale of 1 to 10, it’s less than 5.
  • Your breathing is easier than it used to be.
  • You can easily have a conversation as you work out.
  • Your heart rate is lower during workouts.
  • You feel stuck.
  • You stopped seeing results.
  • Your fitness seems to have hit a plateau.

Check Your Heart Rate

You can use your heart rate to gauge how intense your workouts are and strive for a higher level. Here’s how:

Figure out your maximum heart rate. Subtract your age from 220. That’s your average minimum heart rate per minute during exercise.

  • Find your target heart rate zone, which tells you what number to aim for during a workout. A vigorous workout is 70%-85% of your maximum heart rate.
  • Use a heart rate monitor or an activity tracker with a heart rate monitor to check your rate during your workout.
  • If it’s lower than 70%, there’s room for more.
  • Aim for higher end of your target zone.

 

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How to Take It Up a Notch

Try to change one of these four things, Saltos says:

  • Frequency. Add an extra workout to your weekly routine. If you normally exercise 3 days a week, bump it up to 4.
  • Intensity. Ratchet up how much weight you lift, how fast you run, or another level of intensity. “Is your pair of 5-pound dumbbells starting to feel light? Maybe it’s time to invest in 8-pound dumbbells,” Saltos says.
  • Time. Add time onto your regular workout. If you lift weights for 20 minutes, tack on 5 minutes to make it 25. If you usually run for a half hour, start building up to 45 minutes. Instead of taking a 45-minute cardio class, sign up for a 60-minute class.
  • Tempo. Pick up the pace or cut down on rest. Speed up the tempo of repetition or sets, says James Shapiro, a personal trainer in New York City. If you lift weights and rest for 5 minutes between sets, scale it back to 2 minutes. Run a little faster. Take fewer walking breaks. If you swim, add short bursts of speed.
  • Vary your activities. Try a new type of exercise. If your regular routine involves walking, start jogging. Try biking, swimming, running, or another activity that’s new to you. Cross-training can get you past a fitness plateau while crushing boredom and keeping injuries at bay.
  • Try interval training. High-intensity interval training, or HIIT, is a powerful way to boost your workout intensity. It improves your aerobic capacity and burns calories in less time. Add short, intense bursts of exercise into your regular workouts. For example, add a few 30-second sprints in the middle of your long walk or run. During a bike ride, try a few short bursts of pedaling faster and harder.

For Best Results, Follow These Guidelines

Get a green light from your doctor. If you have an existing medical condition, talk to your doctor before boosting your intensity. They know your medical history and can tell you if it’s a good idea to level up your fitness routine. Your doctor can also give you advice on how to stay safe. If you’re not sure how much intensity to add to your workouts, ask your doctor.

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Take small steps. Don’t go from zero to 60 in one day. “Small changes make for the biggest gains,” Saltos says. “If you go too hard, too fast, you’ll most likely burn yourself out and possibly injure yourself.” Start with small increments. Add 15 minutes to a workout. Increase the amount of weight you lift by 10%. Add just one day to your current fitness regimen before you think about adding a second day.

Look at the big picture. Strive for balance. To make a long-term change in your health, think of your fitness as a lifetime commitment. A slow, steady increase in your fitness will have the biggest and safest impact on your health.

WebMD Feature

Sources

Danny Saltos, owner, Train With Danny, Los Angeles.

James Shapiro, personal trainer, New York City.

American College of Sports Medicine: “Tips for Monitoring Aerobic Exercise.”

American Council on Exercise: “10 Tips for Powering Through Plateaus.”

American Heart Association: “For the best health, does the intensity of your workout matter?” “Overcoming a Fitness Plateau.”

Mayo Clinic: “Exercise Intensity: How to Measure It,” “Rev up your workout with interval training.”

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