Becoming Comfortable with Discomfort
Discomfort vs True Challenge
Even experienced trainees have difficulty distinguishing between muscular discomfort and the feeling of challenging their muscles to the point they are truly stimulated. Almost every athlete perceives discomfort as more significant than it actually is. Our natural instinct is to avoid any form of discomfort at all costs.
This becomes one of the main reasons people stall in their efforts to improve both their performance and their physique; most quit too early without properly challenging themselves. The “mental toughness” that accompanies truly pushing your limits is a learned ability, just like everything else in fitness. Pushing your boundaries is your friend. This is where transformation happens.
In the gym
Assuming proper exercise form is established, it is the appropriate time to challenge yourself to turn up the intensity on your workouts. New to intermediate trainees drastically sell themselves short on how much weight they can move or how hard they can go. When given a standardized weight and asked to predict the number of repetitions they can complete before reaching muscular failure, trainees routinely under-estimate their ability by ~3 reps on average (sometimes their predictions are off by as much as 11 reps short of failure).1
When allowed to self-select weight, they routinely choose significantly lighter loads than they are capable of. For instance, when trainees are asked to choose a weight they can move for a 10 rep max on bench press (taken to failure), they routinely complete ~5 extra reps due to under-estimating the weight they should use.2 In some cases, the self-selection error was so far off they were able to complete 11 reps more than their target. They were attempting a load that allows more than double their intended reps.
Only around 20% of individuals prove to accurately estimate their true limit within an acceptable margin of error.2 This leads to performing excessive volume or does not provide an adequate challenge when given a prescribed number of reps. Not only does this slow or stall their progress, it can actually make the issue worse. Resistance training performed with a light load until failure induces higher degrees of effort, discomfort, and displeasure compared to a moderate load.3
By choosing the lighter weights, they are actually increasing displeasure without increasing effectiveness. This is where the use of perceived exertion can be deceiving. Many incorrectly associate extreme displeasure and muscle soreness with a good workout. Some even thrive on it, but it is not optimal. Additionally, the more repetitions that someone performs the more inaccurate a person is at estimating when they will attain failure.4
Moral of the story: pick a heavier weight for lower reps instead of a lighter weight for a higher number of repetitions in most cases. It will allow you to be able to more accurately predict your ability. When you are given a rep number to hit, such as when you are under the guidance of a knowledgeable coach, challenge yourself to use the heaviest weight you believe you can…then add 5lbs. This is one of the best ways to assure true local muscular stimulation and adaptation. It also helps you to avoid the pitfalls of using discomfort as a metric of success or as a reason to quit prematurely. The same can be said for cardiovascular performance work. If you are able to hold a conversation when performing your cardio, you are not working hard enough (assuming increasing cardiovascular health and performance are your goals). Push through the discomfort.
From theory to action
Our main goal with cardio is to challenge our cardiovascular system and our main goal with resistance training is to induce sufficient mechanical tension in the muscle to prompt it to grow and get stronger. I know the heavier weights can be scary. Know that you can very likely power through when you believe you should stop (with proper safety precautions of course). That is your goal. Remind yourself that muscular discomfort is temporary. Solid muscle fatigue often (but not always) yields a dull, mild pain sensation that comes on gradually a day or two after your workout. Stay active, use myofascial release, and dynamic stretching to feel better.
Severe acute pain is different; it is a sign of damage. Actual damage can also present as consistent sharp or nagging pains that do not go away. Injury status and true signs of pathological pain should be taken into consideration when deciding how hard to push yourself. These are indications that rest and even a doctor’s visit may be necessary.
When following modern training protocols such as reps in reserve (RiR) for intensity, I find a helpful trick is to use your first two weeks in a new training block to take targeted sets to failure as a way to verify you have chosen the proper weight to progress for the rest of that cycle. As a crash course in RiR, 2 RiR would represent a weight you can only complete 2 more reps AFTER your target number of reps prior to failure. An RiR of 0 would be your 1 rep maximum. Let’s assume you plan to do 2 RiR. You select a weight you believe you can do for 3 reps beyond your prescribed number of reps (any subsequent reps should be absolute failure if you have chosen correctly). You lift this weight for as many reps as it takes for absolute muscle failure. If you get more than 3 reps, then it’s time to add some weight because you undershot with your guesstimate. If you fail 2-3 reps beyond your prescribed number, then you are dead on. Easy fail-safe way to test RiR.
Still a bit concerned? Luckily, the vast majority of people that go to the gym are more than happy to be your spotter as long as you ask politely and offer the same in return. This is often the only confidence boost someone needs to take lifting beyond their normal limits into the area in which you grow…right outside your comfort zone.
“When you learn to withstand discomfort and push through something difficult, it gives you confidence. It’s empowering and shows you that you can do more than you likely thought you could.”5
- Steele et al. (2017)
- Barbosa-Netto et al. (2017)
- Ribeiro et al. (2019)
- Zourdos et al (2019)
- Olson (2015)