I’ve always kept very contrasting habits when it comes to fitness (well, at least for as long as fitness has been a priority in my life). First it was boxing and yoga—now, it’s weightlifting and yoga. You’ll find very different types of cues and encouragement in these two worlds! In boxing and lifting, proper form and safety is a top concern, but you’re also urged to push farther. Discomfort can and should get intense, because that’s the only way you’ll get to the next level. Yes, you’ll eventually reach a point where you can no longer go on or go up in weights, but unless you’ve been at this a long time that should be years away.
My boxing coach, when showing someone else how to train me, said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but treat her like a dog. She’ll just keep going until you tell her to stop.” That’s how you need to be when you’re in a sport where it’s more important being able to take a beating than give one. In weightlifting, how hard you go depends largely on what type of lifting you do and your goals. For me, if you’re not almost maxxing out at your last reps, you’re not going hard enough on yourself. Your muscles need to tear and recover if they’re going to get bigger and toned. Period. That won’t happen if your weights are too light.
Every yoga teacher has a different background, style and philosophy. However, I’ve encountered many that seem to go overboard on the “be gentle with yourself” philosophy. Yoga should never hurt. However, unless you’re intentionally taking a gentle class, it should certainly be challenging. Discomfort can and should be a part of many yoga practices, including vinyasa (one of the most common, and what I teach). If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not challenging yourself and growing.
It might seem like there’s a fine line between discomfort and pain, but there’s not. You know the difference, and your body innately knows the difference even if your brain is being stubborn. For example, it can be very uncomfortable to hold a proper Warrior 2 stance, especially if you’ve already had leg day and a spin class that morning (my unfortunate situation on some Tuesdays). Your muscles are tired, exhausted, and straining but you know you’re not actually in pain.
Real pain? You also know it instantly and that’s your body telling you to back off. I’ve taken hits to the body and face, including one stupid time when I had a man hit me bare-fisted, but nothing compares to the pain of actually pulling out your back. It’s happened to me twice, and both times it was while doing deadlifts and I just completely spaced putting on a lifting belt (you’d think I’d have learned the first time!). I already have a bad back with early degenerative disc disease and a lifetime of poor posture behind me. The second my back went out, my body said, “Enough.”
It’s the kind of pain where, truly, if I had to choose between death and living my life with that pain, I’d choose death. It hurt to be alive and no position felt comfortable. Fortunately, it was also easy to fix in a single chiropractor session, but my god. Trust me, your body knows the difference between pain and discomfort.
Why is Discomfort Good?
You’ve heard of “getting out of your comfort zone,” and that goes for fitness, too. Obviously we’re comfortable in our comfort zone! It’s scary to get uncomfortable because we’re not really sure what to expect. Worse, we think we’ll fail. Type-A personalities can be especially resistant because we feel like we’ve “mastered” a certain level. We might be “the best” in our fitness class and are afraid of going to that next level with a new class or making a fool of ourselves. We don’t want to have to put down weights before the reps are up or not manage to stay up in that handstand we’ve been wanting to try.
Without discomfort, there is no growth. There is no learning, no joy, and no failures to help make us better. We stagnate without discomfort. Simply put, we need it to be better.
But pain? Stay away from it—and don’t let your own self fool you into calling discomfort pain. You know the difference. And you know what to do.