I like to think that fitness and training is all about getting out of your comfort zone. I remember the first time I stepped into my high school weight room; even though it was full of equipment I wouldn’t necessarily consider beneficial anymore, I vividly remember how sore my pecs were from the chest press machine after that first day, and how uncomfortable it felt. I’m glad to say that I’ve moved on to more useful exercises since then, and I’ve also come to understand soreness on a deeper level. To start, it indicated I had worked hard that very first day.
Ever since then, I’ve racked up my fair share of time under the barbell, and my soreness patterns have become predictable. I know I’m probably going to be sore the day after I hit barbell reverse lunges, for example. I also know that I’m probably going to be all kinds of sore in the first few days of a new training program, and that foam rolling during those first few days is going to be an interesting undertaking.
None of this is inherently comfortable, and it’s not supposed to be. Proper training and getting results does not occur in the comfort zone. It’s when we become comfortable with being uncomfortable that true progress occurs. Beginning trainees will often struggle with this—after all, no one said that it would be easy.
Though once people get over the hump, so to speak, they become more accustomed to soreness and what it should feel like. They begin to understand that there is a difference between soreness and actual pain, and that there is a difference between “too much” and “just right.”
There’s no doubt that “just the right amount of soreness” is much better than “did too much, now there’s pain.” But if you tend to hang out on the latter end of this spectrum and are failing to make any progress as a result, perhaps it’s time for a change. Here is the first of three reasons why you might be hanging out in the pain range: programming.
Now that we’ve established that there’s a difference between soreness and pain, let me let you in on a little secret: exercise should not hurt, ever.
Among us coaches and fitness professionals, there’s a very popular expression we like to use: there are never contraindicated exercises, just contraindicated people.
If an exercise hurts, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad, it might just mean that it’s not the right time for it. For example, if your hamstrings are so tight that you can’t deadlift from the floor without rounding your back, you should probably spare your spine and stop doing it. This doesn’t mean however, that all bending patterns are out of the question. In this instance, decreasing the range of motion and doing block pulls may very well be the better choice at this time, especially if the extra elevation helps you keep your back in check. With a little patience and mobility work, full ROM deadlifting will likely be a good choice in the future, but not at that moment.
Programming and specifically exercise selection, is an important piece of the training puzzle. For every exercise that hurts, there is an alternative that works better. Proper training should definitely take place in the realm of core movement patterns such as the squat and bend, but not everyone has to back squat and deadlift with a barbell in order to train them, especially if certain mobility and stability limitations are getting in the way. Make the program suit you, and not the other way around.
In the meantime, have a critical look at your exercise selection and determine if anything needs to be changed. Stay tuned for the second reason why people get hurt in the gym: periodization.
By Jeremy Lau
Jeremy Lau is a Staff Coach at Halevy Life.
Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and is currently pursuing his M.Ed. in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).
Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.
As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.