“Listen to your body” may not always be the shame-filled, fatphobic rhetoric that fills fitness spaces. But at best, it’s nonspecific.
To decode the turn of phrase that’ll prolly still be going strong in 2030, we turned to three fitness pros. Below, they share how to listen to your bod and what happens if you fail to do so.
Just so you know, soreness and pain are not synonymous. One is the good kind of hurt (muscle soreness), the other indicates harm (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, hurts more when you move|
|Dull, heavy, tight, stiff||Stinging, radiating, burning, sharp, stabbing|
Muscle soreness can be good
It’s a sign of muscle growth — the (micro)torn — the very muscle fibers you’re trying to grow.
“You damage the muscle fibers so your body can repair them and repair them even stronger than they were before,” explains physical therapist Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Movement Vault, a digital platform where he teaches you to improve flexibility and mobility.
Also known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS, your muscles might feel tight, stiff, heavy (especially when clunking up stairs), or tender to the touch.
“It’s a general ache that increases when you move or stretch the muscle,” he says. Sure, it’s a bit annoying but it shouldn’t last more than 2 to 4 days.
“Ouch-inducing” pain never is
Pain that can be pinpointed to a joint, bone, or tendon could be an injury and is a sign to take it easy. The pain usually stings, is radiating, burning, sharp, and/or stabbing. And it may linger longer than a few days.
If there was a moment in your last workout that you can ID as being injury-causing (dropping a kettlebell, rolling an ankle, tripping on the treadmill, falling off your bike, a “pull” while moving weight), chances are it’s not just soreness.
“Leave an injury untreated and you risk making it worse,” says Dr. Alex Tauberg DC,CSCS, CCSP®, EMR owner of The Pittsburgh Chiropractic in Pennsylvania.
So, dear reader who’s a week into the “oohs,” “owws!” and “ouches,” don’t be a dumbbell (er, dumbo). Go to the doctor.
Know that feeling when your head just isn’t in it? That’s 👎.
“When you’re working out, your head needs to be dialed in, otherwise you risk hurting yourself,” says Arielle Thomas Newman MA, E-RYT 500, founder and director of Yoga by the Sea.
Makes sense, especially when it comes to tedious workouts like intense yoga, CrossFit, or strength training where form is super important.
If you show up to the gym and your head is OOO, Newman suggests, “Take 2 minutes, close your eyes and focus on inhaling and exhaling.” Maybe even cue up Headspace real quick. This will help calm your central nervous system and “bring your focus inward so that you’ll actually be able to listen to your body,” she says.
Feel better? Go sweat. Otherwise, continue breathing (lol, duh) and do a dynamic warmup. Flow through some Cat Cow, Downward Dog, Hip Circles, and Bear Crawls, and then decide if you want to leave.
“If you’re not able to focus on what you are doing, then you’re more likely to get injured,” says Dr. Tauberg.
If you still feel exercising will help, go sweat, but keep the intensity at 75 to 80 percent. “An injury is more likely to happen when you’re performing at higher, more intense levels. So if you’re not in it, dial it back,” he says.
Listening to your body is about guaranteeing your fitness and health in the long term.
OK, OK — but what if you ignore all this?
Your risk of getting injured goes W-A-Y up.
“Listening to your body basically comes down to being conscious of how ready your body and mind are for exercise,” says Wickham. That info should inform you whether you should go full speed ahead as planned, slow way down, or totally phone out.
Let’s start with a truth bomb: most exercisers will never push their bodies hard enough to enter what’s colloquial known as The Pain Cave. That’s because you have to have a pre-requisite level of fitness (being able to work out hard/fast/heavy/long enough) to get there.
The cave is a D-A-R-K emotional/mental space athletes enter in the middle of a race, game, competition, or super tough workout.
When you’re in the pain cave you block out your surroundings/fans. You lose your senses. You lose track of time. It is, in essence, the fitness version of blacking out.
An athlete’s willingness to enter the pain cave — and go deep into the pain cave — can be the difference between a podium finish or not. “So long as an athlete’s body is prepared for it, going to the pain cave isn’t unhealthy,” says Wickham.
But (!!) if you’re just getting back into exercise and take working out lightly, this isn’t some place you should be traveling to. Wickham notes that ex-college athletes, former professional athletes, and other folks who at one point in their life strongly identified with the label “athlete” may seek out the pain cave too often.
“The risk of pushing yourself to the pain cave too often — especially if you’re not a professional athlete — is overtraining syndrome, because you’re pushing your body past its capacity to recovery,” he says.
Don’t read it wrong! This doesn’t mean, don’t tough it out or don’t push yourself ever. Ask yourself: Why do I feel a need to push myself this hard? What am I running away from or to? What am I trying to forget or “black” out? What are my goals?
You might consider working with a trainer who can help you figure out what your fitness goals are — and how to train for them. Or, you might consider working with a mental health professional who can help you come up with a healthier coping strategy.
1. Start and maintain a mindfulness practice
Literally any mindfulness practice — yoga, meditating, mindful hiking/walking, body scanning, masturbating, counting to five, having tantric sex — goes. Even 5 minutes counts.
2. Keep a journal
“Take physical notes in a journal on the basic things you’re feeling and thinking right before you hit the gym,” suggests Wickham.
- What aches/tingles/throbs?
- What feels fresh?
- Am I feeling powerful/capable?
- Am I feeling poorly rested?
Spend 3 minutes noodling on these prompts. It may feel foreign at first. But, “after a few months you’ll be able to answer them much more easily,” he says.
3. Get a tracking device
Specifically, a tracking device that measures resting heart rate, heart rate variability (HRV), and hours of sleep. “These measurements are a direct reflection of how recovered you are,” says Wickham.
The lower your resting heart rate + the higher your HRV + the more hours of sleep you log = the better recovered you are for the next workout.
According to Wickham, over a couple of weeks you’ll notice a pattern between the data and how you feel.
“You’re not using the tracker to avoid listening to your body,” he says. “You’re using the device to help you decipher what your body is telling you.” Fair.
Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based sex and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. Follow her on Instagram.