Sunday, July 7, 2019

Discomfort During Exercise

A friend who is interested in building muscle told me, “I’m curious how you relate to the pain of doing exercise.” I asked them what they meant by “pain” in this case, and they seemed unclear on it.

How to relate to discomfort in exercise is a great question, and it’s one of the reasons I’d recommend most people do regular yoga for at least a month before they get serious about weight lifting. Exercise involves discomfort. Recognizing and understanding what various bodily sensations mean is key to getting stronger without hurting yourself.

In response, I made three mindfulness exercises that might help distinguish types of discomfort during physical exercise, and weight lifting in particular. You might want to do them in the middle of a meditation session, so you’re already in the right state of mind.

Exercise One

Get a sharp pencil, a paper clip, a key, or something similarly pointy. Gently press the pointy thing to the meaty part of your palm, near your thumb. Stopping well before you break the skin, gradually increase the pressure, and pay attention to the details of the sensations at the pressure point.

This is a kind of “sharp pain”. You should associate it with “danger” in exercise. It usually indicates that something is going wrong, and ignoring it will likely lead to injury.

I experienced “sharp pain” similar to this when I lifted too much weight in a squat and damaged a groin muscle (an acute muscle strain). It’s also similar to the pain I’ve recently been feeling in the front of my shoulder when doing front raises and certain other motions, which a doctor confirmed for me is caused by an inflamed shoulder bursa (an overuse injury). I felt it in my feet when my plantar fascia degraded from increasing my running mileage too quickly (another overuse injury).

If you feel a sharp pain while exercising, especially if you seem to feel it where you’d expect a bone to be or where something might connect to a bone, back off right away. Try to understand what’s going on, then re-evaluate.

If a sharp pain doesn’t stop when you stop the exercise, do a little first aid, and if it’s not noticeably better in a day, see a doctor. First aid for muscle and connective tissue injury is RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. You can also take an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen, which will lesson pain and reduce swelling.

Exercise Two

Hold up two fingers of your left hand in a peace sign. Using your right hand, grip both peace-sign fingers and press the middle knuckles together, so the insides of the knuckles are touching. Gradually increase the pressure, and pay attention to the details of the sensations at your left knuckles.

This is a kind of “pinching” or “joint compression”. It usually indicates danger to joints. Somewhere, your bones are pressing on some intervening tissue with more force than that intervening tissue is designed to take. You should find it a bit less concerning than “sharp pain”, but you shouldn’t ignore it. When you feel it, back off by reducing weight or intensity, or by changing position, until the pinching goes away.

If you’re feeling pinching very frequently in most of your lifts even at very low weight, it might be a good idea to focus for a while on stabilization and range of motion exercises. Do things like yoga and pilates for a while, then come back to lifting. You may find that the little muscles around your joints are better able to take the load off of the joint itself.

Exercise Three

Find something that’s about the size and shape of a can of beans or a water bottle. Set a three minute timer. Hold the can at your left side with your arm straight, then raise the left arm out to the side until the can is at shoulder height, palm facing down. Stay in this position for a full three minutes, and pay attention to the details of the sensations in the muscles of your left shoulder and upper arm.

Most likely, these are the sensations of healthy muscle exertion and muscle fatigue. (This is a static version of a “lateral raise”, an exercise that works the lateral deltoid muscles.) For me, it feels a little like burning deep in the muscle.

If I do it long enough (about six minutes in my case), my arm starts to shake, and the burning becomes intense. My heart-rate increases and my breathing gets deeper and faster. My arm starts to feel like it’s a metal rod that’s on fire during an earth quake. Eventually the water bottle begins to lower, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it short of lifting it up with my other arm.

The experiences that occur toward the end of this exercise are things you want to happen in weight lifting. As I understand it, the physiological processes these sensations correspond to have something to do with the lactic acid produced when glycogen is drawn directly from the muscle tissue to fuel contraction. You don’t feel those sensations in the beginning of the exercise because there’s still local oxygen available to combine with carbohydrates for fuel, which doesn’t produce lactic acid.

I don’t have a satisfactory gears-level model about why, but for some reason, you have to get your muscles to burn through almost all of the fuel stored in them before the magic thing happens that causes them to get bigger and stronger in the future. (I’m aware of some common hypotheses, I’m just not satisfied by them.) That means the immediate sensations of lactic acid and muscle exhaustion, in the absence of sharp or pinching pain, are your best indications of successful muscle building.

On My Relationship With Discomfort In Exercise

I want to insert a disclaimer here. It’s common among people who exercise a lot, and who have done so for a long time, to describe the sensations associated with successful exercise as enjoyable. Maybe those people stuck with something unpleasant until it became pleasant, for whatever reason. (Most of us like to think so.) OR maybe they’re predisposed to enjoy exercise-related discomfort, and are thus more likely to continue exercising just because it’s easier for them.

If the latter, I am definitely such a person. I started gymnastics in pre-school and haven’t stopped moving since. It only took about three months of consistent distance running for running to become just about my favorite activity ever. I lift four times a week, do at least half an hour of cardio three times a week, and do at least an hour of yoga once a week, with many a sun salutation in between. My little brother is similarly active. So I think you should take with a grain of salt anything I say about learning to enjoy exercise. It seems likely that I just don’t have the same obstacles as more sedentary people.

But my experiences talking with others, and completing a yoga teacher training program, suggest you can probably change your perceptions of exercise by at least some amount.

I think it takes some time and/or some skill in internal double crux to develop a happy relationship with sensations of muscle exertion. A foundation of differentiation between types of discomfort is probably important; if you just try to ignore discomfort without knowing what it means, you’ll stay stuck in an internal conflict that saps your energy (and keeps your body safe, if physically weak). I’ve learned to perceive and understand many small details of physical sensation during exercise, so I trust myself to move safely at full power. My mind and body feel aligned most of the time. I don’t have a little voice saying “You need to stop or something bad will happen” unless I really am doing something harmful.

But there’s also something about appreciating the feeling of exertion in itself. Lifting heavy weights until I can’t anymore makes me feel alive and powerful, like a summer storm. It makes me feel on fire.

Becoming stronger, in all senses, is one of my central values. Fully enjoying weight lifting for me involves being in touch with that value, and with the relationship between it and the physical sensations. It’s the pleasure of striving, of overcoming obstacles and finding out what’s on the other side. It’s beginning as a candle and becoming a sun. It’s always difficult and uncomfortable, but I love it.