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Pain vs. Discomfort

As a personal trainer, there’s usually a beginning phase to a program where I’m getting to know a new client – what they like and dislike, what their capabilities are, how their body responds to certain exercises, and things like this.  This is an ‘adaptation’ phase and also provides a chance to teach some basic fundamentals of specific exercises and certain points of body awareness and posture that will be useful in many areas of life.

Another thing that this introductory phase provides is an opportunity to differentiate between pain and discomfort.  Strenuous exercise is difficult and, by nature, should be somewhat uncomfortable.  It should not be painful.

For example, when I’m doing pullups, I thinking about a few things – maintaining a loose grip on the bar, trying to minimize my bicep work, properly engaging the back muscles, and how much I hate them.  I can’t wait to be done with them because they are difficult, uncomfortable, and I don’t like doing them.

This is very different than something being painful.  With pain, it definitely feels like something is ‘wrong’ at a specific location in a joint or muscle.  This may manifest itself at a particular point in a specific motion, or just a general ache, throb, or something like that.  If you’ve ever had a sore knee, elbow, or a pulled muscle, you know what this feels like.

Also, you should be able to differentiate between lactic acid burn and legitimate pain.  For many new clients that aren’t familiar with the sensation, I’ll stick them on a leg extension machine to bang out 20 slow reps, which is guaranteed to produce a pretty gnarly burn.  A ‘burn’ is often the word also associated with a pinched nerve, though this is typically a very acute event that feels very different from a lactic acid burn.

So think about the different between pain and discomfort the next time you’re working out.  If you have ambitious goals and are not at least somewhat uncomfortable when you’re working out, you may need to re-evaluate your exercise selection or the intensity you’re working at.

About Darin Starr

Darin is an ACSM certified trainer in Asheville, North Carolina. He works with clients 1-on-1, with partners and small groups, and also teaches group fitness classes.
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