Workout endorphins—you know, that feeling after a really tough spin class or tough hill run that makes you feel like Beyoncé during the Superbowl halftime show— are like a miracle elixir for your mood and body.
But sometimes that rush can be elusive when you're not doing cardio; you head to the gym, start getting into your groove with the free weights, but never get that on-top-of-the-world feeling. What gives?
WTF Are Endorphins Anyways?
Workout endorphins are essentially your body's response to the stress of exercise, says Trainerize kinesiologist and nutrition coach Michelle Roots. That's why a five-minute run probably won't give you a "high"—it doesn't disrupt your body's homeostasis (or level of normal functioning) enough to send it into the fight-or-flight mode. Once you do reach this level of stress, your body releases pain-relieving hormones (AKA endorphins) to calm your body and ease the stress level. That's why you get that second wind during a run, when you go from "is it over yet?" to "this is actually kind of nice!" (There's even more to know about the science behind your runner's high.)
Why Are Endorphons MIA In the Weight Room?
First of all, every body's response to stress is different, says Roots, but your workout style is probably to blame. If you don't get your body past that stress threshold, it won't feel the need to release those endorphins, and you won't get a happy buzz, says Roots. That means you might not be lifting heavy enough or taking too-long rest breaks.
"If you're sitting on a bench, taking a few selfies and doing a few bicep curls, you're not getting your heart rate up and it's not creating as stress on the body like, say, a 30-minute run would," explains Roots.
Another culprit: cruising through the same gym routine, over and over again. If you're consistently lifting the same weights and doing the same movements, your body has adapted to it, will no longer feel stressed by that routine, and won't need to release those endorphins, she says. (Try these tough, trainer-approved strength moves instead.)
However, just because you don't get a huge rush from every pump doesn't mean your workout isn't giving you any benefits. Roots emphasizes that it all depends on your training goals: "If your goal is to build muscle, you'll have your workouts set up in a way that might call for a day you when you're be lifting heavy, sitting in a chair (like a seated bicep curl), which might not give you that endorphin rush. But if your goal in that specific workout is to build muscle, you're not necessarily looking for that anyways." (P.S. Does strength training once a week actually do anything?)
OK, But How Do I Get Them?
Sometimes you had a hard day at work, your bae is being shady, or your roommate is driving you up the wall, and you need a good, hard, mood-boosting workout.
"If you're working out because you want to produce that endorphin release and feel really good after, you should tailor your workout around that. Your best bet would be something like boxing, sprints, or HIIT, that's really going to stress your body" says Roots. "Or you want to lift heavier weights, add cardio in between strength moves, or do exercises that incorporate more muscle groups or are full-body exercise. That way you're not only building strength, but getting your heart rate up too."
She says you can try complex movements like a squat press, barbell squat, burpee with push up, cable row with a squat, or pull-up to recruit tons of muscles, stress the body more, and get closer to that endorphin-releasing burn. (And try these 5 Smart Ways to Structure Your Strength Training.)
Another great way to prevent a halfass, endorphin-less workout is to have a goal in mind. When you're running, you usually either set out to run for a certain number of minutes or miles, which forces you to push through and get to that stressful state where you get a high. However, in a gym, you might be tempted to rest longer and stick to lower weights because you have the option to make it easier. "When you have a goal in mind, you're more focused and you'll push yourself a little bit harder and increase the stress on the body," says Roots. Her other suggestions: Add music to your workout or try a totally new one.
So if you aren't getting that rush during every single workout, it's OK, but it might be a sign that you can turn up the intensity. And if you're gunning for that golden feeling? Head straight out for a run or to the spin studio, because that's the quickest way to those good vibes.