Our body sends us many signals on a daily basis. Sensations such as hunger, thirst, temperature, and fatigue are useful in keeping us safe and healthy. Of course, we have to listen to these signals and consciously make the appropriate decision in order to benefit from them. At times, this can be easier said than done. To illustrate, if you accidentally rest your hand on a hot stove, you are going to instinctively pull it away as fast as you can. Pretty simple, right? On the other hand, the signals you receive may be more ambiguous, making the proper decision less ascertainable. Pain while exercising, the topic of this blog, often falls into the latter category. Is there an acceptable degree of pain? If so, how much is too much? At what point is there something legitimately wrong? If there is something wrong, what should I do?
Severity. Pain, like many other sensations, is a signal from our body. It can alert us to potential dangers, but it doesn’t always mean there is something immediately wrong. For instance, if you begin to feel a little hungry, you probably don’t begin to worry that you will die of starvation. Likewise, the severity of the alert (pain) is key in determining the path forward. Is the pain mild and does it limit your range of motion only slightly, if at all? If so, then small adjustments to load, volume, and/or range of motion should do the trick. If the pain is severe and significantly limits range of motion, larger adjustments to the previously mentioned training factors will likely need to be made. Removing symptomatic movement patterns for a time may also be necessary. Pain-free range of motion is the golden standard. From there, we can take the appropriate steps to restore range of motion.
Duration. How long our body has been sending us the signal is another important consideration. Minor and inconsequential pains often come and go within a week or two. Pain that persists for a month or more is an indication of some form of overtraining, and adjustments should be made accordingly. Significant pain that continues for several months may indicate an underlying injury that requires medical attention. Keep in mind, minor pains have the potential to progress to major pains. Even if the pain is mild, it is not a bad idea to make small adjustments to prevent it from worsening. Taking a little bit of weight off the bar is certainly preferable to having to sit it out for a few days.
Modification. When exercising, we often have a plan. Because of unforeseen circumstances, we may have to deviate from our original plan a little bit (or a lotta bit). This is called modification, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. It is a necessary and natural part of the process. You can make modifications by reducing load, reducing the number of reps, or reducing the range of motion. You can also swap out a movement for one that doesn’t produce symptomatic pain. One of the largest factors to success on a training program is consistency, and modification is a key way to maintain it.
The signals we receive from our body are a valuable tool in our success and longevity. If we listen to them, we can focus on our health and fitness with minimal interruptions!