Injuries: When to Keep Pushing and When to Scale Back

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Injuries happen when you’re active, but when do you back off and when do you push through the workout?

If you’re active and push your body to stay strong, fit, and agile, the odds are good you will experience injuries from time to time. Injuries can and should be minimized with multiple factors such as precise technique, intelligent exercise scheduling, emphasizing recovery techniques such as stretching and manual therapy, and taking periodic breaks; but to some extent, they are still unavoidable. Using your body will inevitably cause wear and tear, plus there will always be those situations where something was out of alignment, was too tight or too loose, or was just pushed beyond its structural limits, and these scenarios are when injuries occur.

All this may seem fairly obvious, but what’s sometimes unclear is if an injury has occurred at all. Now, of course, some injuries are extremely obvious - such as when I suffered a pectoral tear bench pressing several years ago; I felt it happen and I knew immediately that I had sustained an injury and also exactly what the injury was.  But other times things can feel ‘a little off’ and it can be very difficult to tell what’s going on. I’ve come across this a lot with clients, and there’s often some confusion of when to scale back and when to push through the pain.

While there is no exact rule to knowing when you need to back off due to injury, there are some helpful assessments I’ve used with clients to identify when something’s injured or not. The first is the quality of the feeling. Injuries are normally very distinct from the regular discomforts of exercise. Whereas hard exercise can make you gasp, make your muscle ache with muscle soreness or burn with lactic acid accumulation, injuries almost always have a much more acute and specific feeling. For example, if the feeling you're experiencing is easy to pinpoint, and feels sharp, pinchy, stingy, or shooting, it is most likely an injury, and you should discontinue all activity until you’ve assessed the situation. However, if you’re experiencing a dull ache, general fatigue in an area, or any other less specific sensation, you’re probably fine to keep training and watching for further developments. While this method isn’t 100% reliable, it’s certainly better than having nothing to go on.

Another helpful tactic in determining if there’s been an injury is movement. If you exercise regularly, you’re likely very familiar with how your extremities bend and move normally and how they feel while doing so. If something is feeling off, take a few moments to move it carefully through normal ranges of motion. If there are any unusual limitations, pain, or instability, you may have an injury and should back off until you can be more certain.

If neither of these techniques has shed light on the situation, try proceeding with caution. Sometimes things can feel bad from sleeping in an unusual position of from some previous unusual activity, and once you get the area warmed up more the odd feelings will dissipate.  Other times, if something is actually wrong, continued activity will cause the sensations to worsen until one of the above tests tells you for sure what’s going on. An important thing to keep in mind if you choose the wait-and-see method is your body will always feel the best when you are warmed up and active, so err on the side of caution. You can easily find yourself in the situation where something felt minor in the gym, so you kept pushing it, only to find later when you’re at home and your body is cooling off and stiffening up, the problem is a lot worse than you originally thought.

As I’ve mentioned, there is no guaranteed method of determining if an injury has occurred, and if you’re a driven person, you likely don’t want to be held back by every unusual sensation your body has when exercising. On the other hand, an injury will cause a much bigger disruption to your training progress than a few scaled back workouts, so it pays to use these techniques to ascertain when it’s a good idea to keep pushing and when it’s probably smarter to back off and call it a day. In the end, you are the one responsible for your body’s well-being and also your results, so don’t use fear of injury as an excuse to go easy or skip workouts, but also make sure you check your ego and take a step back when you really need to. In both cases, your body and your future self will thank you.

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