By Barbara Broggelwirth, RDN, CDN
True story: I was working out with an online fitness app when the trainer said “you are capable of more than you think. If you are shaking or feel pain, that is just your brain’s way of telling you that it is sensing pain. You can work past it,” and so I did. That was six months ago, and I was only just able to resume working that muscle group. Turns out, my body was telling me that I was injuring myself and that I should stop, but I didn’t listen. Recovering from that one incident nearly erased many years of consistent hard work.
In contrast, recently I was working out with a credentialed trainer who wisely stated, “Exercise is a two-way conversation with your body. If you feel pain, stop.” It felt good to hear that and now I remind myself of that statement often. It has exponentially improved the quality of my workouts so I thought it might be a concept worth sharing.
That said, it doesn’t mean that soreness is a bad thing. After all, if we don’t break down our muscles, we can’t build them back up. So how do we know the difference? Below are some guidelines to consider when embarking on an exercise regimen.
- There is a difference between being sore and being in pain.
|General ache||Pinpointed pain|
|Lasts 3 to 4 days||Lasts longer than a week|
|Hurts when you move, doesn’t hurt when you’re still||Hurts when you’re still and when you move|
|Dull, heavy, tight, stiff||Stinging, radiating, burning, sharp, stabbing|
- Muscle soreness is a sign of muscle growth. When you strain your muscles (i.e.: strength training), you damage the muscle fibers and then your body repairs them, making them stronger than before. When your muscles feel tight, stiff and heavy after a workout, this is known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (aka DOMS) and should only last a few days. Gentle stretching can help alleviate some of the discomfort.
- Conversely, pain that can be pinpointed to a joint, bone or tendon could be a sign of injury and you should stop performing that activity. Additionally, if it is an actual injury (see chart above), it is important to see your physician right away. Injuries that are left untreated can get worse and delay the healing process.
- Start off small and work your way up. Start with your body weight and nail down your form. While it may be tempting to use the heavier weights at first, it is more important to understand the proper form to avoid joint or back injury. For instance, when you lunge, keep your knees behind your toes, not in front.
In summary, be kind to your body. Remind yourself that we are what we consistently do. We don’t have to work so hard in one single workout that we risk injuring ourselves if we accept that we will be working out and incrementally improving our fitness for the rest of our lives. It is also important to recognize that some days we may feel stronger than others and that is okay.
There are many factors that influence our physical capabilities that can vary from day to day such as sleep quality, hormonal fluctuations and whether we fueled appropriately before the workout. So, ignore the shame-filled, fatphobic rhetoric that fills many fitness spaces. Remember, exercise is a two-way conversation with your body.
Barbara Broggelwirth, RDN, CDN is a registered dietitian nutritionist who works with Bariatric and Medical Weight Management patients to help them achieve their health and weight loss goals.