Here is a common question I get as both a doctor of physical therapy and a strength coach from clients, "How do I know whether or not to push through pain when exercising?"
The old adage of 'no pain, no gain' is horse crap in pretty much every instance... but only when it comes to actual pain. Pushing through pain is never a good long term solution, but it’s also not that simple.
We know you want to work hard and Feel the Bern™ which is good when you're doing it right. So how do you know what is a 'good' feeling and what is a 'bad' feeling?
To know pain is to know gain, but many people find it hard to differentiate what is a “normal” sensation during exercise and what is a “bad” sensation during exercise. Follow the knowledge bombs below to equip yourself with the right tools so you can make the right decision when going #BeastMode.
1. Reproduction of Known Symptoms
If you have a previous injury history with known symptoms (i.e. patellar tendonitis with sharp pain at your kneecap) then you should not be pushing through any reproduction of these symptoms during an exercise. The best approach is to find things to 'work around' these sensations, not 'through' them.
2. Quality of the Sensation
Sensations, or pain, can usually be qualified by descriptive words. If what you are feeling is sharp and/or pinching, than this is usually not a good sign. If what you are feeling is more of a general muscle ache, than this is usually a sign of muscular fatigue, a normal response to exercise.
3. Location of Pain
There’s a few ways to look at this one...
- Body part: There are very few scenarios where you want to feel a pain in or along a joint, i.e. the top of your wrist, the front of your ankle, the inside of your knee, etc. Typically this should be avoided. However, the opposite does not hold true, pain not located at a joint does not necessarily mean it’s good.
- Exercise selection: The sensation you are feeling should make sense on behalf of the exercise direction, i.e. upper back soreness after performing cable rows. If you’re squatting, you should not expect pain in your shoulder.
- Area: General diffuse soreness or achiness across a large area of muscle groups can be normal, i.e. upper thigh soreness, chest soreness; and may just require a decreased volume or intensity of training that day. Focal pain, easy to point to with one finger, is generally more indicative of an injury.
4. Intensity of pain
While this varies for everyone, the level of discomfort you are experiencing should not exceed a certain level. You can use a scale of 0-10, 0 being no pain, and a 10 being “send me to the ER”. The sensation for working muscles during (and the day after! Maybe two!) exercise should not exceed a 2/10.
5. Trust your senses
If you are not sure something feels right, then it probably doesn’t feel right. For those superheroes who are new to exercise, everything may feel foreign and clunky at first. This is normal! It will be harder to 'know' what you should be feeling so it doesn't hurt to ask questions. The good news is you'll keep getting better at it every time you train. Like a ninja!
The Bottom Line...
None of these guidelines are written in stone, so when in doubt, seek a professional opinion. If you feel something, say something. Your coach can always find a way to modify an exercise or find an alternative to help you safely train. If your pain persists, especially outside of training, we also offer physical therapy at AMP. Feel free to pick my brain, don’t hesitate to talk to me or you can send me an e-mail. Sometimes a problem can be avoided all together from just a few simple words.
At the end of the day, the more you train and the more you get to know your body, the easier it will be to distinguish what is a “good” sensation from a “bad” sensation during/after exercise.
Get after it and keep living your best life! We’re here to help you achieve that!