We all have days when we crush our workout. Energy is up, nutrition is on point and motivation is high. Then there are those days when the warm-up feels like the main event.
Over the years, trainers and gymgoers alike have come to realize that the “no pain, no gain” mentality ultimately leads to burnout and/or injury. Instead of forcing a workout that wasn’t meant to be, it’s sometimes smarter — not to mention safer and healthier — to back off.
Tough It Out or Take It Easy?
There are a variety of simple self-assessments you can do to determine if you’re ready to rock your workout. Each offers insights into how your body’s cardiovascular, nervous and respiratory systems are handling various life stressors (i.e., exercise, stress, lack of sleep) and whether you should forge ahead or pull back.
Two popular methods are heart rate and heart-rate variability (HRV), the change in time between heartbeats. But these aren’t your only options. There are two little-known self-assessments that, like heart rate and HRV, tell you in real time how primed you are to train on a given day: grip strength and breath-hold tests.
According to Andy Galpin, Ph.D., an associate professor of kinesiology at California State University, Fullerton, grip strength in particular is a good indicator of overall strength, which generally doesn’t change much from day to day unless your central nervous system is overloaded.
If your central nervous system is fatigued — which could be due to overtraining, sleep deprivation or poor nutrition — a low hand-grip score will let you know when it’s time to back off. Similarly, an inability to take and hold a deep breath could indicate you’ve been in a sympathetic (aka fight or flight) state for too long and could use a break.
“Folks have been using heart-rate monitors for about 30 years now,” says David Dellanave, strength coach and co-owner of The Movement Minneapolis. “This is just the next logical step in learning more about what is actually going on in the body and how it’s responding to training so that we can make better decisions.”
If you want to incorporate these tests into your training, pick one that you think you’ll be able to commit to doing every day for a month so you can establish your baseline. Once you establish your baseline, you’ll be better equipped to determine when you’re off your A-game — and how to respond.
1. The Grip-Strength Test
You’ll need a hand-grip dynamometer (options available for less than $30). Hold the dynamometer in the hand to be tested, bend the arm at 90 degrees and keep the elbow close to the body. Squeeze the dynamometer once with as much force as possible for three to five seconds (readings shown in pounds or kilograms). Make sure to test both hands.
2. The Breath-Hold Test
All you need is a timer. While standing, inhale deeply, allowing your diaphragm to expand (no shallow chest breaths). Hold that breath for as long as possible.
Galpin recommends performing your test of choice first thing in the morning, even before you have your coffee. That said, if you’re not a morning person, it’s fine to do it later in the day. Just make sure to do it at that same time every day.
What Do Your Scores Mean?
Choose your tracking method — whether that’s a notebook, Excel file or memo on your phone — and plot your daily scores. You’ll also want to note whether or not you exercised that day along with mood, stress levels, soreness and any other insights that might offer helpful clues or patterns later on.
According to Galpin, 5 percent variability from your baseline is normal for grip-strength tests, while you could see 5 to 10 percent variability for breath. If you find you’re exceeding those percentages, you may want to reduce your workload or skip that day’s workout entirely.
Exercise physiologist Dean Somerset, CSCS, implements biofeedback tests for many of the athletes he works with, adjusting their training according to the numbers: “If someone is usually performing at a certain number, but today they’re coming in around 10 percent less, it would be time for more technique and less loading. If they’re coming in at 10 percent over those numbers, we could test out some heavier or more intense work.”
On the other hand, even if your numbers are low, you may decide to proceed with your workout as planned. According to Dellanave, variations from your average could mean it’s an ideal day for a tough training session because your nervous system is already tense and ready. Or it could mean you’re overstressed.
“The thing to understand is that in both cases you will incur a greater recovery cost from training,” Dellanave says. So if it’s important to you to get in your workout, just know that you’ll likely need extra TLC afterward.