I find it amusing that I wrote about the difference between getting better and getting tired just last week and last night one of my personal training clients told me she thought the workouts we were doing were too easy and a little boring. She was worried that she wasn’t getting stronger. Clearly, I’m not getting much better at communicating the purpose of training.

Thankfully, her comment did lead to a really interesting and valuable conversation for both of us. We went over mastering the basics, how our memory often fails us and that there was actually a lot more variety in our workouts than she thought and the fact that you can get stronger without maxing every workout or testing yourself.

Mastering the basics is worth another, much longer, post that I’ll write in the future. Today, I want to focus on the “it’s too easy” part.

To add some context, the program I have her doing is 5 days per week. We train for 30 minutes doing a solid warmup, a reasonable strength circuit that covers all the basic movements for 3 sets of 8–12 reps, and a little stretching. I have her run intervals a few times per week on her own.

By reasonable strength circuit I mean the weights are not max efforts. 50%–70% of her max most of the time. The fact that our workouts are short and not incredibly demanding is what led my client to think the workouts were too easy and she wasn’t getting stronger.

I have been coaching long enough to know this wasn’t the case. Thanks to programs like Dan John’s 40-Day Program, I knew maxing out every workout was unnecessary and that consistent, reasonable effort would produce massive results.

I didn’t want my client to take my word for it, so we switched up the workout for the day and tested her strength instead. I tested her grip strength with a hang for time test, her squatting strength with goblet squats, and her pressing strength with one arm dumbbell presses.

The grip strength test was quick and easy. Hang as long as you can. She lasted 30 seconds. This was an improvement of 10 seconds from the 20-second limit she had when we started. This may not sound like much, but it’s a 50% improvement! That’s huge! If I said you were going to get a 50% raise at work, you’d be bursting with excitement. Getting 50% stronger is equally impressive.

For the goblet squat test, I had her start at 30 pounds and do one set of 3 increasing the weight by 5 pounds every set. Normally, we do goblet squats at 40–50 pounds, so the first sets were quite easy and she was rolling her eyes at me in a playful way. As I continued pointing to the next dumbbell and telling her to do 3 more reps, her look… changed. After completing 3 reps at 75 pounds, I decided to give her legs a little break.

Keep in mind, because we are coming back to this, that she’s now done 30 reps total, every set has been harder than the last, and she’s almost to double what she trains at.

For the break, I had her do the same test with her one arm press. She started at 10 pounds and did 3 reps. Easy. I typically have her train at 15–20 pounds. 15, 20, and 25 pounds all looked easy as well, but I could tell 25 was starting to get heavy. I had her try one more set at 30 pounds. It was tough, but it was clean. That’s where we stopped.

30 pounds might not sound like much, but the last time we did this test, her max was 25 pounds. Again, this 5 pound increase might not seem like much, but it’s a 20% improvement. That’s a massive improvement.

I didn’t tell her she was going to do more squats after the pressing test, so her eyes got really big when I picked up the 80-pound dumbbell and handed it to her. To her surprise, 3 reps weren’t too hard. Then she did 85. At this point, fatigue was setting in and I could tell she was losing confidence in her ability to do much more, so I skipped to the heaviest dumbbell on the rack and had her do one more set. 3 reps at 100 pounds was tough, but she did it and it looked solid.

When we started training, 8 reps of 40 pounds was challenging. I didn’t check scaling charts, but I’m pretty sure 3 reps at 100 pounds shows a pretty significant increase in strength.

Just to recap, her grip strength increased 50%, her pressing strength increased 20%, and she can nearly goblet squat her bodyweight. She’s much stronger than when we started. She was pleasantly surprised and quite impressed with herself.

This leads to the real point of this post and it’s a tough one to accept. We are improving whether we prove it to ourselves or not.

Tests do not make us stronger. They only demonstrate strength we’ve already built. This can help us know we are on the right track, but I think most of the time, we just want an ego boost.

I’m still forming my conclusions on what this means, so I can’t offer any advice today other than to acknowledge this and really ask yourself why you’re testing yourself. Is it to know you’re on the right track or is it to just feel better about yourself? If it’s to know you’re on the right track, ask yourself why you’re not trusting the methods you’re using. If it’s to feel better about yourself, ask yourself why. It will probably lead to a much more interesting answer than how much you can squat.