This Might Hurt A Little: Understanding Pain and Discomfort with Exercise

Hi there! You’ve probably arrived at this blog post because something about the title grabbed your attention. I’m going to guess it was the bit about understanding pain and discomfort with exercise. Whether you’re just starting out, feeling hesitant about taking the plunge, dealing with chronic pain, or already on your way but encountering roadblocks, this one’s for you. Let’s dive into the complex world of physical discomfort in fitness and how to navigate it with greater understanding.

understanding pain and discomfort with exercise

Understanding Pain

First off, let’s address the elephant in the room: pain. Pain is real, and it sucks. (As a person who deals with daily pain–thanks to my badly arthritic shoulder–I understand how much of an impact even a little pain can have on your day. And, it’s important for us to remember that there are a number of reasons we might feel pain. Pain doesn’t always mean injury or tissue damage. Sometimes, it’s your body’s way of signaling a need for change.

Physical therapist Dr. Kelly Starrett aptly describes pain as often being a “request for change” from your nervous system. This is especially relevant for those experiencing discomfort during or after workouts. Under most circumstances, the discomfort you feel during exercise isn’t indicative of an injury. While it’s impossible to say with certainty (after all, this is just a blog post and I’m not a medical professional), the most common cause of exercise-related pain is a product of the disparity between where your muscles/fitness-level is now and where you’re trying to get it to.

Simply put, exercise aims to challenge the current limits of your muscular strength and endurance. In the process of challenging yourself, you’re likely to run into muscles that are tighter than they need to be (and are responding to that challenge with discomfort) or muscles that end up trying really hard to help out by compensating for other muscles that need to be stronger (and are responding to that challenge with discomfort). The resultant discomfort is, no doubt, unpleasant…but not necessarily bad.

Movement is your friend

A significant piece of the puzzle here is movement (or perhaps more specifically, exercise) experience. This is, of course, all relative, but the more experience you have with certain movement patterns and degrees of intensity of exertion, the greater a library of sensations you’re likely to have accumulated. The more varied physical exertion-based sensations you’ve experienced, the better able you’ll be to differentiate between pain and what we often call therapeutic discomfort.

Pain is something we generally don’t want to ignore or push through. Therapeutic discomfort–which we also do not want to ignore–tends to be the kind of thing you feel as though you can work through. Figuring out the difference can sometimes take time and an appreciation for your body’s nuances.

And, on the flip side, if you’re relatively new to fitness-ing, there’s a chance your nervous system (and thus, muscles and stuff) will be more sensitive to intense sensations. 

Movement is going to be your friend in the journey of desensitization—changing the way your brain perceives pain in certain areas. If we were to think of pain as being a part of your body’s clever alarm system, more movement experiences help your body to reframe exactly what constitutes an ‘alarm’. 

Reframing Pain

Speaking of reframing how we view pain: what if we viewed pain as information? What is your body trying to tell you? What is the change your body is asking for?

For example, let’s take the split squat, a common exercise that can sometimes cause knee discomfort. (And, tragically, this discomfort often causes people to avoid this most glorious and wonderful of exercises!) This discomfort could be due to alignment issues, muscle tightness, or it could be as simple as having chosen a too-difficult-right-now version of the exercise. 

In all of these cases, the pain is very real and unpleasant…and more often than not, we’re not actually at risk of causing an injury. Even better, we can often alleviate this discomfort by making a technique adjustment.

Tips for reframing sensations during and after your workouts:

  1. Technique Check: Ensure your joint alignment and technique are correct. Incorrect form can lead to unnecessary discomfort.
  2. Difficulty Level: Don’t push yourself too hard too soon. Gradually increase the challenge as your strength improves.
  3. Trial and Error: If something feels uncomfortable but manageable, try a few more reps. If it improves, great! If not, reassess and make adjustments.
  4. Recovery from Injury: If you’re recovering from an injury, we suggest starting here.

Remember, your fitness journey is unique to you and your body. Along the way, you’ll learn more and more about how to interpret the sensations you experience. With time, you’ll come to recognize the difference between “bad pain” and the discomfort that comes with challenging your body to grow and adapt. With patience, understanding, and a willingness to listen to your body, you’ll be able to navigate the ups and downs of fitnessing with confidence and resilience.

Here’s to embracing the discomfort and thriving on your fitness journey! You’ve got this.