By Corinne Croce
Feel the burn. Work through the burn. Don’t give up, keep going.
These are all things we hear or tell ourselves during exercise. You hear this when your glutes are on fire after the 50th leg lift, or your shoulders are screaming with 25 presses. It sounds like “burn” is something that indicates a great workout, but this is not always the case. Knowing when a burn changes your body vs. when a burn is straining your body is the difference between toned, beautifully sculpted muscles, and a potential strain — or an even worse injury. Here’s what to look out for.
The burning sensation you feel in muscles happens when a muscle is nearing fatigue. The muscles must be challenged in order to improve the look or function, and working to fatigue is how you can challenge a muscle — however, you want to work to fatigue efficiently. A burning sensation is an alert that the muscle is nearing its limit. When “the burn” kicks in you want to work for a short duration after or for a few more reps beyond it, but more is not better: so stop shortly after the burn sensation kicks in.
The Stop or Reset
“Stop” does not mean stop a workout. Stop means give the muscle, movement, or position that was burning a break. A break can mean you move to another exercise for active rest on one muscle while you work another, or just what I call a quick RESET — a short break from a prolonged position or repetitive motion. A quick reset or a fluid movement to another muscle group is an EFFICIENT way to keep your heart rate up and work continuously without risking strain.
Your Body’s Compensation
If you ignore your body’s signals and push for a significant amount of time, or bang out multiple more reps once the burn kicks in, you are likely no longer benefiting the muscle you are trying to change. You will, however, begin to compensate or strain. Not a pretty picture. If you keep working through the burn beyond that muscle’s ability, others muscles will kick in to help, and this leads to compensations.
- For example: If you are doing a shoulder press and your rotator cuff gives out or your delts fatigue, then your neck muscles will kick in to help you keep moving. No one is doing a shoulder press to tone the neck.
Where is the Burn?
Another thing to think about: Are you feeling the burn in the muscle you’re working or another area? If you’re doing an overhead triceps dip and your neck burns, this is not an indicator of working the triceps. Likely your triceps gave out and you weren’t aware… not all muscles have the same alert intensity, but if the burn starts in another area, like the neck, then you should know to stop.
What Muscles are you Working?
Another area to consider: How much stability does the exercise you’re doing require? Stabilizer muscles give out faster than we think — if you’re working your core or shoulder stabilizers, please assume these muscles need a RESET soon after it starts.
The Moral of the Story
Think about it this way — if you want to challenge yourself to ONE 5 minute plank, it’s pretty likely the burn will be a strain from you hanging on your shoulders, stressing your back, or doing other compensation. However, if you do multiple challenging planks over 5 minutes, where you reset the plank every 30 secs in child’s pose for 5 seconds, you can be sure that your burn was efficient and will bring you to your goals.
I’m not going to tell you to stop an exercise right when the burn starts and get on your IPhone for minutes at a time. I am asking you to feel the burn, work a bit past it, then take a pause, do 3 breaths, and return to the burn.
Corinne Croce is a Doctor of Physical Therapy. Corinne works privately in her own practice and in-house at SoulCycle. Corinne truly believes in personal care. She works one-on-one with the most cutting edge manual techniques and expert exercise programs. Corinne is a certified Active Release Therapy and Graston Technique specialist. Corinne values her own personal health and fitness, training with many of the leading trainers in NYC. She has a great understanding and compassion for her clients’ goals, and finds individualized needs to stay strong and healthy in all activities and life.
Corinne’s passion is in personalized care: Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org for any needs.