Becoming Comfortable with Discomfort
Discomfort vs Fatigue
Even experienced trainees have difficulty distinguishing between muscular discomfort and the feeling of fatiguing your 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 just quit too early without properly challenging themselves. The “mental toughness” that accompanies truly challenging your muscles is a learned ability, just like everything else in fitness. Fatigue is your friend. This is where transformation happens. Those who are able to identify this and exit their comfort zone will achieve true progress.
In the gym
When you are confident you have proper exercise form, that is the appropriate time to really challenge yourself to turn up the intensity on your workouts. New to moderate 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.Steele et al (2017) When allowed to self-select weight, they choose lighter weights than they are capable of using. This leads to performing excessive volume or does not challenge them enough 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.Ribeiro et al (2019)
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.Zourdos et al (2019)
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 being given a rep number to hit, such as when you are with a knowledgeable coach, challenge yourself to use the heaviest weight you believe you can…then add 5lbs. This is the best way to assure true local muscular stimulation, adaptation, and fatigue. 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 work. If you are able to hold a conversation when performing your cardio, you are not working hard enough. 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. Remind yourself that muscular fatigue on the other side of discomfort is good. That is your goal. Solid muscle fatigue yields a dull, mild pain sensation that often begins 24-48 hours post-exercise. Stay active, use myofascial release, and static 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.
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.”Olson 2015