7 Strategies When Exercise Hurts
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Squats hurt your knees?
Push-ups bother your wrists or shoulders?
Deadlifts aggravate your back?
Whichever exercise causes you some form of pain (anything beyond the normal discomfort of exercise in the first place)… don’t lose hope and think you aren’t capable of exercise anymore and that you’ll never be able to reach your goals because of it.
There are always solutions. You just have to know which one is right for you.
This First Thing Is Important
In case you don’t know, I’m a certified personal trainer… not a doctor.
The 7 strategies I’m about to share are things I’ve seen success with for myself and my clients. But since I don’t know your personal situation, I’m NOT advising that you try any of them to address your specific issue.
In some cases these strategies will work great. In other cases they may be the exact opposite of what you need. Only you, your doctor, or at least a personal trainer you’re working with directly can decide if any of this suits your situation.
What you CAN do with this information is use it to educate yourself on your journey toward losing weight and feeling better. This isn’t even close to being a comprehensive list of possible solutions.
Use that knowledge (and this list) to help you understand that even if your body is struggling right now, there are ways to work around it so you can build up your strength and energy to eventually be as active as you want and feel good while you do it.
In the meantime, if you have pain, always, always, always talk to your doctor before trying any of these 7 strategies…
1. Adjust Your Form
More often than not, if an exercise causes a slight twinge, tweak, or tingle… all it takes is a quick look at how you’re doing that exercise and then a simple adjustment to your form clears it right up.
Sometimes it’s a wider stance, a different grip, a shift in your weight… there are countless ways to change things up to find a position that’ll work better for you.
With that in mind, know that there’s no such thing as “the only way” to do ANY exercise. Your body is different from mine, so our technique may look different from exercise to exercise.
There are things that wouldn’t make sense, like trying to do squats with one foot stacked on top of the other (just as an extreme example). But there’s always a little wiggle room on how you do an exercise that still qualifies as “good form.”
Be willing to experiment, but don’t obsess over whether your technique is “perfect,” because there’s no such thing.
2. Adjust the Weight
Going to a lighter weight might seem like an obvious solution, but our pride can get in the way — especially if you can say, “I’ve lifted this before and didn’t have a problem.”
That doesn’t matter. Listen to your body, not your ego.
On the other hand, I’m not saying you should be scared to ever lift heavy.
There are times when what you really need to stave off injury is more strength, and if you get stuck thinking you can only lift light weights, your pain may never improve.
Like everything on this list, it takes a personal touch to know which strategy is best for you.
3. Stay Further Away from Failure
If you don’t seem to have a problem with an exercise right away, but trouble crops up the more you do it (or even days later), it’s possible you might just be pushing your body past its limits.
If every set you do of an exercise takes you to the point of muscle failure — like when you do push-ups and on the last one you can’t push yourself back up all the way — try ending your sets a rep or two sooner.
In most cases, it’s better to stop short of failure anyway (as long as you’re being honest with yourself and aren’t stopping WAY too soon). But certainly if you have a certain muscle or joint that causes you problems, you can err more on the side of caution by not pushing yourself too hard.
4. Manage the Frequency
Speaking of pushing your body past its limits, many issues with pain are caused by an accumulation of stress rather than that one isolated moment when pain suddenly hits.
This is just one reason why the average, busy person can get better results if they DON’T work out every day and why, when they do exercise, most of those workouts should NOT be super intense.
Most of our clients work out just 2-3 days per week for around 30 min. Typically, that allows your body enough time to recover so you actually start to get the benefits from those workouts, like having more strength, more energy, and generally feeling better with fewer aches and pains.
(Side note: A lot of recovery issues also come down to not getting enough high-quality sleep. Read “Is Your Sleep Preventing Weight Loss?”)
5. Slow It Down
Slowing down makes an exercise more difficult, but in a good way. It makes you control your body and/or the weights so you feel the exercise in the right muscles rather than just creating extra forces as you bounce on your joints.
When I’m using this strategy, I typically aim for a good 3-4 seconds in the “lowering” portion of the movement (e.g. going down in a squat, or when the weights on a machine are being lowered).
Regardless of the exact pacing (which doesn’t matter all that much), remember to use less weight than you would if you were working at regular speed.
6. Adjust Your Range of Motion
If a squat hurts your knees, it might not hurt them at all if you don’t squat as deep. (Or in certain cases some people have fewer problems if they squat deeper.)
If push-ups hurt your shoulders, you might not have any problems if you don’t worry about lowering your chest all the way to the floor. (Or sometimes “pushing the floor away” to create a slightly bigger range of motion at the top of a push-up can be good for the shoulders.)
Again, I go back to saying there isn’t one right solution and there isn’t one right way to do an exercise.
There are certain meatheads who might say a rep “doesn’t count” if you don’t do it THEIR way. But if you aren’t a competitive lifter who has to follow certain rules, wouldn’t it be better to do what gives YOU the best results?
7. Use Another Variation
As an example, doing some kind of squat is necessary for any good workout plan, but one of the most common variations (the one where you squat with a barbell on your back) is a terrible choice for most people.
Fortunately, there are goblet squats, dumbbell squats, heel elevated squats, split squats, Frankenstein squats, plus a million others… and each of those has its own million subvariants, too.
This is true for every. single. exercise.
I don’t expect you to have every variation memorized. In fact, I don’t expect you to know hardly any of the limitless modifications you can make to any given exercise.
The point is they exist, so you never HAVE to do any one specific exercise.
The Most Important Point
With the right strategy, the appropriate variation, a good program, and proper coaching, it’s possible to eventually feel confident with movement you currently avoid, whether it’s an exercise, roughhousing with your kids, going on hikes as a family, or even just taking the stairs.
I don’t care how old you are, how out of shape you feel, or how much weight you have to lose — you can feel better than you have in years with less work than you think.
That’s because getting results isn’t about working hard no matter the cost. It’s NOT “not pain, no gain.” It’s about putting just enough effort into the RIGHT things so you can reach your goals while still living a normal life.
If you want to see practical examples of how this works, check out our free video guides:
Just because an exercise hurts doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to do it or won’t be able to reach your goals.
You might even already be capable of doing it (consult your doctor) but you just need a change in technique, a new variation, and/or a better program that appropriately challenges you — not too hard, causing more pain, but not too easy either so you actually build up your strength and resilience.
No matter how old you are or how out of shape you feel, you CAN feel better than you have in years with less work than you think. It’s NOT “not pain, no gain.” It’s about putting just enough effort into the RIGHT things to get results.
To see how we can help, check out our coaching here.