When you are just getting started with a fitness program, how do you know what is "good" pain or "bad" pain? More importantly, how do you know if you should push through it, or stop?
When you are unused to regular exercise, it can be challenging to make this distinction at first. In the first week or so, everything might feel painful. Just the warm up might make you sweat. Every workout might make you sore. Maybe for days.
Then there is the loud chorus of “fitspo” messages urging you to push through-- “No pain no gain” “Just do it” “Sweat is your fat crying” --all of which imply that exercise SHOULD hurt, and that you should ignore all pain signals at any and all costs.
We take a slightly different approach with our small group training clients. We believe that pain is your body giving you valuable information. We aim to help our clients learn to interpret this information, and begin to differentiate between "bad" pain--your body signaling that something is in fact wrong-- and "good pain" or what we like to call "productive discomfort."
Here are some some questions to run through when you feel pain during a workout that will help you determine if what you are feeling is PRODUCTIVE or DESTRUCTIVE.
WHERE do you feel it?
A) in the muscle
B) in a joint
C) I can’t tell
Sensation in the muscle (A) is generally productive, and is something you want to learn to breathe through. Sharp shooting pain, or “pinging” pain in a joint (B), not so much. That is an indication that you should modify or skip that exercise for today, and seek an opportunity to learn more from your coach one-on-one. Sometimes you won’t be able to tell (C), and that’s when your coach can help by asking further questions to narrow down what might be happening, or, if needed, refer you to a physical therapist.
WHEN do you feel it? example: “Squatting hurts my knees!”
Does it hurt…
A) during the entire range of motion? i.e. as soon as you start moving downward and continuously until you return to standing?
B) during a specific part of the movement, in this example it might be in the very bottom of the squat
A is fairly uncommon, but would be an indication that we would want to skip that exercise until we can get more information. More often our clients who report pain with a particular movement feel it during a specific part of the movement (B).
Going back to our squatting example, they might feel it at the bottom of the squat. This is great information, and lets us know we want to limit the range of motion for now, so that the client stays in the range of motion that is pain-free. However, we want to make a mental note that we need to work on increasing mobility and stability for that client to broaden their safe range of motion.
HOW does the feeling change over time? As you do multiple reps of the exercise, does the sensation…
A) get worse or intensify with successive repetitions?
B) stay the same with each repetition of the exercise?
C) decrease in intensity with successive repetitions?
If the answer is A. we will want to modify or change the exercise—Increasing pain is most likely destructive. If the answer is B, we want to keep our awareness on the sensation, and monitor over time (how do you feel the day after the workout? Is the same sensation present the next time you encounter the same exercise next week? This could be productive discomfort, but only time and more information will tell! If the answer is C, that means we are in productive territory, and this movement is actually medicine for you! In this case, the sensation you feel is that of “working out the kinks” so to speak.
You are the only one with the answer to these questions of Where, When & How. Once you share these answers with your coach, s/he can help you determine if the sensation is productive or destructive. This information is essential! It enables your coach to help you to stay safe, and dial in the intensity your workouts to a productive level.
In other words, your coach can help you interpret the data, but you are the one who must collect and share it!