Updated: Apr 6, 2020
Pain tells us that something is wrong. It’s a feeling of physical or emotional discomfort. After finding the motivation to get yourself to the gym, one of the worst feelings is that of pain while you’re trying to complete a workout.
You work so hard to get there, and now you’re not able to do what you set out to do.
So do you just walk out of the gym and give up? Definitely not.
First, you need to identify what type of pain you’re experiencing. If you’re new to working out this can be hard to differentiate from the pain you may feel on a day-to-day basis.
Is it fatigue?
There is a normal amount of discomfort that comes with working out. This is the “burn” or the buildup of acid in your muscles. As you complete reps of a given exercise, you will continue to build up this acid which will eventually force you to stop. There is nothing wrong with this type of pain.
Is it delayed-onset-muscle-soreness or DOMS?
When you stress and fatigue a muscle, you are tearing it on a micro-level. This is what causes the soreness you feel after your workouts which is also followed by stiffness and fatigue. As your body gets more used to the type of program you are doing, you will feel less of this type of soreness. This is why the pain is so severe when you first start working out or when you start a new program with different challenges.
Is it a debilitating pain from injury or immobility?
Injury pain is very different from regular workout pain. Usually, you’ll be able to tell when something just doesn’t feel right. This can occur when your form goes south or if you have immobility that puts the stress of an exercise in a place where it doesn’t belong. Generally, if it doesn’t fall into another of the above categories, you can mark it down as debilitating.
The first two types of pain are completely normal and a regular part of being active. The last type is best avoided, but inevitable in most peoples’ lives.
So here’s what you can do if you experience the wrong type of pain in the gym.
1) Change the load
I’ll use a barbell squat as an example. If you’re squatting with 135lbs and you feel pain, the first suggestion I would give is to decrease the weight. Try 95lbs next.
If you no longer feel the pain, great! This means you can continue training the motion just with a decreased intensity.
If you still feel pain, decrease it further, say to 45lbs or an empty barbell. Let’s say you still feel pain and you still even feel it with a bodyweight squat. What do you do then?
2) Change the range of motion
If someone feels pain, I would ask them at what point in the movement are they feeling the pain. Is it at the bottom of the squat? When this is the case, I would slightly decrease the range of motion and test it.
Again if this solves the problem then you’re set. But let’s say as soon as you unrack the bar regardless of load or range of motion, you feel pain.
3) Change the exercise
Once you’ve reached this point of pain assessment, you need to change the motion entirely. This doesn’t mean that because the exercise is a squat you have to abandon all lower body exercises. My next step would be to attempt a leg press for example.
It may just be that the particular motion of the squat is triggering an ill effect and you need to change things up.
You never want to give up on working out. I never tell my clients what they can’t do, rather I tell them what they can do. There is almost always a substitute way to get the desired training effect. Going through these assessments in a step-wise fashion will allow you to continue training, which is the main goal when managing pain or injury.
This doesn’t mean that the order of the steps is written in stone. Range of motion and load alterations can be interchanged to some degree so it will take a bit of experimentation to find what works for you. If both of those methods fail, that’s where exercise selection comes in.
Ultimately you want to find out why you’re experiencing pain in the first place, but that’s outside of the scope of this article. Oftentimes it’s due to a dysfunctional movement pattern or a lack of rest and recovery.
To your good health,
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