When Training Hurts

(Disclaimer: I am not a doctor and this is not medical advice. Training always has some risk attached to it – use your brain and make good decisions. Mmmmkay?)

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A while back, I had one of those workouts that make me question why I do this shit to myself. I was getting ready to compete at the time, and if your body feels stiff and sore and beat to shit two weeks out you’re timing it about right. I was wallowing in some self-pity because my hips hurt and my knee was tied up and my shoulders felt strained, so I took some extra time warming up and started each set a little lighter than usual, just, you know, because I wasn’t willing to drop the workout entirely…and I couldn’t help but notice that when I did that, eventually things started to feel a little better. And the lifts that I did make at the prescribed weights for that day didn’t make anything feel worse. By the end of the workout, I was sweating and my muscles felt tired but ultimately i felt better than when I started. Mission accomplished.

Did I get 100% of the workout done as I had planned, at the intensity level that I wanted? No. Did I have to modify some things? Absolutely. Did it take a little longer than usual? Yup. Did I do any further damage to my stressed-out body? No. Was it better than throwing in the towel and then feeling mad at myself for bailing? HELL YES.

Everyone has a threshold that they’re willing to push themselves to in the name of getting stronger, fitter, losing weight, gaining weight, etc. One of the most important parts of my job as a trainer is figuring out where that threshold is so that I can get the best results for each client, and that needs to happen early in the trainer/client relationship (like, on day one). This takes a commitment to open, honest communication on both sides so that we can build an atmosphere of trust and accountability. A trainer can have all the exercise science pedigrees in the world but if they don’t have good communication skills, they don’t have much.

Finding the discomfort threshold is important because MOST PEOPLE, when they walk into a gym to start working toward whatever their goals are, have some idea that they’re going to have to do some work. “Some work”, however, is a very fluid concept – the amount and brand of discomfort an individual is willing to put up with varies greatly from person to person. Case in point: every year I do some guest presenting at a local college. Every year I have the same conversation with a group of young guys (ages 19-21ish) where they ask how it’s possible to work out consistently over the long term, because every time they decide to start, they go do one workout…and then they’re incapacitated for two weeks and can’t face going back until the trauma fades. The problem? They don’t feel like they’ve gotten a real workout until their limbs turn into quivering sacks of goo. Those guys need a responsible adult to keep a foot on the brake pedal so that they learn to work at an intensity level that’s sustainable over the long term. On the other end of the spectrum are the people who quit at the first sign of discomfort – this stems from a variety of reasons but more often than not, they just haven’t felt the “right” kind of discomfort before and they’re afraid of getting injured. Those people need a coach who can walk the fine line between teaching them how to push themselves in a way that will get them the results they want/need, but who will keep them just comfortable enough that getting fit (whatever ‘fit’ entails for that person) is a fun, relaxed experience. Progress for those people is usually slower and it’s important to have a conversation about that so everyone’s expectations are on par, otherwise the experience will be nasty for all concerned. See? Communication skills!

Ultimately though, it takes a little bit of practice and experience to know what pain or discomfort belongs in the right box: in order to get results from a fitness program, there’s going to have to be some discomfort at some point.  Whether it’s “help I’m outside my comfort zone and I don’t like it” pain or “I’m injuring myself” pain can be hard to discern, so I talk a lot with my clients throughout their workouts about the sensations they’re feeling in the interest of keeping them safe and making progress. It’s important to know the difference between pushing through some muscle burn and pushing through pain from a potentially catastrophic injury.
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“I hate to tell you this, but..”

One of my clients a couple of days ago gave me the over-the-glasses stare – you know that stare, the one that you got from the principal after you and your friends systematically flooded all the toilets in the school at recess time and then got caught after the water ran into the boiler room and knocked out the power to the whole school and you alone were caught red-handed clinging to the top of the bathroom stalls because there was a foot of water on the floor and you couldn’t get down because it was also pitch dark in there? No? Just me? Ok then, you bunch of fuddy-duddies…anyway.

“I hate to even tell you this, but it definitely feels like the good kind of pain. I can’t believe I just said that.” My client was at the very end of his workout. It was one of those great sessions where he had noticeably turned a corner. Resistance training, although it’s hard and it sucks sometimes (it isn’t called path-of-least-resistance training for good reason) gives you a rush that you don’t get from other places in life. You have to push through some physical discomfort – the fatigue-related burning and aching and cardiovascular demand – but also the mental discomfort that rears its ugly head when you look at a heavy weight and think, “I can’t do that”, but once you get used to all the bad feelings and you KNOW you can push through them and prevail, it feels awesome. And it makes you stronger in more ways than one.

After a really good workout, especially if you’re new to it, there is going to be some soreness. Muscles that will let you know, in no uncertain terms, that you used them more than they’d like and they are not happy about it. This is normal, it’s part of getting stronger, and it should get lots better within a couple of days. If you are hurting too much – you can’t do things that you would normally do, or it’s not significantly better within 48 hours, then you probably pushed a little too hard and you will need to adjust the intensity of your next workout. If your pee changes color to dark red or brown, or you get nausea or vomiting with the muscle pain, it’s time to seek medical attention.
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While most muscle aches and pains, if they are fatigue- or exertion related, are a good thing, there are instances where pain is a sure sign to stop what you’re doing and hit the showers. A good way to gauge whether the pain/discomfort is fatigue- or injury-related is the touch test: happy muscles usually like to be touched. So, if you’re working out and you’re feeling crampiness or tight or sore somewhere but you think, hey – it would be nice if someone came and massaged that out right now, then generally that’s healthy tissue complaining because it’s tired and you’re asking lots of it – more than it’s used to, anyway. Injury pain, on the other hand, does NOT under any circumstances want to be touched. If you’re hurting somewhere and the thought of someone touching it makes you snarl, it is definitely time to stop for the day (and maybe get that injury checked out by a healthcare professional).

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So, while it’s ALWAYS a good idea to get some help with your exercise programming from a qualified professional and talking to them about how you’re feeling is the best idea, here is a handy road map if you’re flying solo and not sure how to deal with pain or discomfort that crops up in your workout. Ready for your H-bomb for today?

STOP your workout and seek treatment if you feel:

  • sharp or stabbing pain
  • pain that makes you catch your breath
  • pain that you don’t want anyone to touch, move, or even look at
  • muscle failure or loss of control

*SLOW DOWN and spend some extra time and attention if you feel:

  • joint creakiness or achiness
  • muscle cramps or tightness
  • recurring pain that is due to technique error
  • pain that you think could be massaged out

*IF it doesn’t get waaaay better with a good warm-up and some light exercise, stop. You might be under the weather or you might be exacerbating an injury.

EMBRACE THE PAIN and finish your workout if you feel:

  • discomfort that is due to fatigue or exertion
  • ”burn” in the muscles that you’re working (as long as you still have control over the movement)

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Go forth and dominate, y’all!

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