The Goldilocks Principle: A Workout That’s “Just Right”

by: Christine Morse, M.S., Certified Personal Trainer

Are you working out hard enough? Or too hard?  In order to achieve optimal benefits from your workout you want to make sure you’re doing something that’s neither too hard nor too easy, but “just right”. I refer to this as “the Goldilocks Principle.” Many of us have felt the Goldilocks Principle in our lives. It may go something like this: a 5 lb dumbbell is too light, but a 15 lb dumbbell is too heavy; this 10 lb dumbbell is just right!

I see two types of clients in the gym: those that are apt to push themselves too hard and those that don’t push themselves hard enough. I refer to the first group as my “athletes”—these are the people who will push themselves to the limit and beyond. I worry that they will sprint too fast, bring their heart rate up too high, or lift something so heavy they can’t breathe. I often remind the athletically minded gym members: “Breathe!” “Let’s check your heart rate.” “Ease up.” “Go get some water.”

The second type of exerciser is the one that cuts corners. These are the clients that try to convince me they don’t really need to do another set. When I ask if the weight is heavy enough they always say yes. They look entirely too comfortable while exercising. Sometimes it takes a little convincing to get them to move up in weight or increase the level on a machine. To my corner-cutting clients, I say things like “May I increase the weight on this machine for you?” “Let’s do one more set.” “It’s okay to sweat.” “It’s okay to feel your heart beating a little harder.”

I would hope that we could all be in a third category of exercise: the kind of people who push themselves but don’t overdo it; the ones that don’t cut corners but also know when to quit. Unfortunately, this takes a lot of finesse and intuition that many people don’t have the patience or expertise for. If while reading this article you think you may be more of an athlete or a corner-cutter, you may want to shift your workout intensity towards the middle of the road.

So how do you know if you’re working out hard enough? The easiest way to gauge your workout intensity is to use a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale. This means asking yourself, “On a scale of 1 to 10 how difficult is this?” I always tell my clients to think of 1 as sitting still and 10 like being chased by a bear. In order to get the best workout you want to be somewhere between 6 and 8 on the RPE scale. Now remember that this is a personal scale and has nothing to do with the person next to you. What feels like a 7 for one person, may feel vastly different to someone else.

After a workout that’s “just right,” you should leave the gym feeling like you exerted 70-80 percent of your energy (or 7-8 on a scale of 1 to 10). That means you had a great workout: more intense than just a warm up, but not so challenging that you can’t make it to your car, drive home, prepare a meal, and adequately recover. These are the workouts that help us sleep well at night—hopefully in a bed that’s not too hard and not too soft, but just right.

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