5 Ways to Trick Yourself Into Working Out Harder

Woman working out in park
Drazen Lovric/Getty Images

We've all heard it before—the harder you work, the more effective your workouts are.

From high intensity interval training to Tabata training, there are a number of techniques you can use to push your body into the red zone, a zone that forces your body to burn more calories both during and after your workout.

That's all well and good, but actually doing that, pushing your body that hard is, well, hard.

Maybe if you have a personal trainer yelling in your ear, you can find that extra gear. But what if it's just you? It's easy to go into a workout with the intention of working hard only to slack off when it gets too uncomfortable. That discomfort is what high intensity training is all about.

It takes a certain amount of courage, fearlessness, and plain old discipline to work that hard, but how do you make yourself do it?

It's all about mind over matter. Sometimes you have to trick yourself into pushing hard and there are a variety of ways to do that.

1. Make It a Game

One of the best ways to trick yourself into working harder is to make it feel less like exercise and more like a competition or a game.

If you play sports, you may have a leg up. But, what if you're working out at home or at the gym? There are some tricks you can use to make your usual workout feel less like exercise and more like a challenge you want to master.

The Deck of Cards Workout

A deck of cards is a great tool for workouts and you can use it in a variety of ways. One way is to focus on random reps.

The idea behind this game is to surprise yourself, and your body, with different reps for each exercise you choose. With this approach, you can build a fun, surprising circuit workout that works your whole body while making things just a little more interesting.

You can choose any exercises you like but if you want the full experience, include a mix of strength, cardio, and core work. This keeps things interesting while allowing you to work your entire body in one workout. 

Equipment Needed

What you use is up to you, but the workout below includes dumbbells, a resistance band and, of course, a deck of cards.

How To

  • Shuffle the deck of cards and pull out 20 (or more) cards without looking at them.
  • Grab a Post-it® pad (or just write directly on the cards) and stick a post-it on the back of each card with an exercise written on it (see below).
  • Shuffle the cards again and then warm up with a few minutes of light cardio.
  • When you're warmed up, turn over the first card and do the exercise for the number of reps shown. For example, if you have pushups on the back of a king of hearts, you have to do 12 pushups.
  • Continue going through the cards and try to stick to the reps on each one, if you can.
  • Cool down with some light cardio and a stretch.

Sample Deck of Cards Workout

1. Pushups11. Squat jumps
2. Jumping jacks12. Triceps pushups
3. Burpees13. Puddlejumpers
4. Low impact jumping jacks14. Squat with an overhead press
5. Ski abs15.Wood chops
6. Triceps dips16. Ski hops
7. Squats17. Lunge rows
8. Power hammer curls18. Ball crunches
9. Lunges19. Plyo lunges
10. Ball exchange20. Standing crossover crunches

Fish Bowl Workout

This is another way to surprise yourself with random exercises. You can take the same exercises listed above or choose your own.

Write the exercises on pieces of paper and then drop them in a fish bowl or some other container. Swirl them around and start your workout by picking a random exercise and doing that move for 30-60 seconds. Keep going until you've done all the exercises.

2. Move to the Beat

Music is probably one of the most powerful tools you can use to add both energy and intensity to your workouts.

We all know the feeling of hearing that favorite song at just the right moment in a workout.

It can sometimes make the difference between quitting or sticking with it.

In fact, studies show that music can actually make your workouts feel easier than they are. One study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness found that music offers a ''distraction effect'' and that:

"...listening to a favorite piece of music might decrease the influence of stress caused by fatigue, thus increasing the ''comfort'' level of performing the exercise."

One of the best ways to use music to push yourself is to focus on beats per minute  (BPM). This is great for almost any activity, but particularly for running, walking, and cycling.

By choosing songs at different BPMs, your body will fall into the rhythm of the music and, if you mix it up, you'll automatically move faster when the higher tempo songs come on.

Ranges of Beats Per Minute

The tempo of the music you choose will be different from one person to another, but below is a series of ranges you can choose from depending on the activity:

  • Walking - Easy 115 to 121 BPM
  • Walking - Moderate to fast walking: 124-138 BPM
  • Power Walking/easy jog: 137 to 150 BPM
  • Running: 147 to 160 BPM
  • Cycling - Moderate/fast: 139 to 150 BPM
  • Stairclimbing - 124 to 128 BPM
  • Elliptical - 124 to 128 BPM
  • General aerobic exercise - 115 to 130 BPM

For example, a warm-up song might be around 120 BPM. Going faster might be around 135 BPM. Intersperse that with a song that's, say, 160 BPM and you have an interval workout using your own music.

For this, you'll need some tools to help you figure out the right BPMs for your workout. Below are some tools to either analyze your own music or use other apps or sites for playlist ideas.

  • Song BPM - With this site, you can look up just about any song and find the BPM.
  • Running Playlist - This site has taken the work out of making playlists at certain BPMs. You can simply find the genre you like (pop, alternative, etc.) or the BPMs you want and search for playlists that match your criteria. Each song has a link to iTunes to buy it, if you don't have it in your library.
  • Cruise Control Run - This app is different from the others, actually adjusting your music in real-time to keep you at the pace, heart rate, or cadence you choose. It's targeted to runners, but there's no reason you can't use it for any workout.
  • Pace DJ - This app can find music on your own device to match your ideal pace, or you can find popular playlists at different BPMs.
  • Fit Radio - As the name suggests, this app includes a variety of songs and playlists at different BPMs. There's a huge variety of genres, DJs, and more to choose from. You get 3 free hours and then you pay a monthly or yearly fee.

Taking some time to make different playlists to push a little harder is one of the best ways to trick yourself into shifting into that higher gear.

3. Let Your Playlist Be Your Guide

Another way to use music to work harder is to change how hard you're working from song to song. Using this idea, you might change the order of your songs to match an interval-type workout.

Use a slower or less energetic song for your baseline pace, a higher energy song for a moderate pace, and then your favorite go-to workout song for an all-out effort.

Music Playlist Workout - Easy, Moderate, and Hard

5:57"Jimi Thing" - Warm UpDave Matthews Band99
4:29"Rock That Body" - BaselineBlack Eyed Peas125
4:46"Now that We Found Love" - ModerateHeavy D & The Boys120
4:26"Bridge Burning" - HardFoo Fighters170
3:57"Take Me Out" - BaselineFranz Ferdinand105
4:25"I Will Survive" - ModerateGloria Gaynor120
4:13"Dog Days Are Over" - HardFlorence + The Machine150
4:25"I Will Survive" - HardGloria Gaynor120
3:20"Fancy" - BaselineIggy Azalea95
4:53"Billie Jean" - ModerateMichael Jackson117
4:42"Sorry" - HardMadonna133
3:00"Give a Little More" - Cool downMaroon 5118
 Total Workout time: Approx 50 minutes  

4. Mix and Match

Another way to add intensity is to do a mix and match approach, pairing exercises that alternate a lower intensity with moves that are higher intensity. The lower intensity moves will naturally let you recover so you're ready for each high intensity exercise.

How To:

  • Pick 10 lower intensity exercises and 10 high intensity exercises.
  • Start with a 5-minute warm up.
  • Begin your first low-intensity exercise, doing that for 60 or more seconds.
  • Next, do your high-intensity exercise for 60 seconds.
  • Continue alternating between low and high, doing each move for 30-60 seconds and resting if you get too far out of your comfort zone.
  • For the high intensity exercises, shoot for a Level 8 or 9 on this Perceived Exertion Scale.

Sample Mix and Match Workout

Exercise 1 - Low Intensity ExercisesExercise 2 - High Intensity Exercises
March in placeJog in place
Step touchJog with high knees
Side lunges with windmill armsJog with butt kicks
Knee liftsJumping jacks
Side to side lunge with punchesMountain climbers
Low impact jumping jacksLong jumps
Straight leg kicksFront kick to a lunge
Rear lunge with a med ball front kickMed ball jumping jacks
Knee smashBurpees
Squat with front kicksBear crawls


5. Let Your Smartphone Be Your Guide

Isn't it easier to work harder when you have someone pushing you? You can always work with a personal trainer, of course, but if you have a smartphone, you don't even need one.

There are great apps out there that can push you through tough high intensity workouts.

These workouts are usually guided by an expert or coach, telling you when to work hard and when to rest. Whether you're into walking, running, or just about any cardio machine or activity, you can find an app that will push you harder than you may push yourself.

  • Motion Traxx - This app offers audio workouts coached by a variety of experts and for a variety of different activities. You'll find workouts for every cardio machine, as well as workouts that don't require any equipment. You can search by type, time, or just have the app pick a workout for you. Some of these workouts are really tough and will definitely push you to your limits. There's a free version, but you can also pay a subscription for more workouts.
  • Aaptiv - This app also offers guided workouts based on playlists created by the different coaches. You'll find treadmill, elliptical, and outdoor workouts and they also include strength and core. The playlists all include popular music, making this a must-have if you're a music lover. This also offers a subscription service.
  • 12-Minute Athlete - This app is all about high intensity interval training and includes a variety of workouts that can be done in about 12 minutes, although you can pick how long you want to exercise. You can also pick the equipment you have, view videos of the exercises, and use built-in interval timers, all for just $2.99. Become a power user for $4.99 a month and you get more workouts.
  • 7-Minute Workout - This app is based on a scientific study showing that high intensity circuit training involving 7 body weight exercises can deliver numerous health benefits in less time. The app itself has more than 7 exercise, of course. In fact, it has 72 exercises as well as 22 workouts to try. It has tons of great options for customization and it's free, so you've got nothing to lose.
  • Zombies, Run! - This app is too fun. As the site explains, you've survived a zombie attack and you're on your way to the last remaining outpost. This is the concept that forces you to work harder. Go for a walk or run (or do any other activity) and, if you're chased by zombies, you have to speed up. There are 200 missions, so there's always something new to try. It's free, but there are in-app purchases as well.

Let's face it... working hard is hard! Sometimes you can dig deep to find that extra motivation to do it, but it's much easier if you have some solid go-to tools in your fitness toolbox. When you know you need to work hard, pull out that playlist or that app and you'll find it's much easier to get going.


Karageorghis C, Mouzourides D, Priest D, Sasso T, Morrish D, Walley C. Psychophysical and ergogenic effects of synchronous music during treadmill walking.Journal of sport & exercise psychology.;2009;31(1):18–36. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19325186.

Yamashita S, Iwai K, Akimoto T, Sugawara J, Kono I. Effects of music during exercise on RPE, heart rate and the autonomic nervous system. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness. 2006;46(3):425–30. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16998447.