Push Yourself Mentally, Listen to Yourself Physically

Photo Courtesy of: Microsoft Images

No Pain, All Gain
Photo Courtesy of: Microsoft Images

Take Action & Respond: What steps do you take to push yourself mentally to make sure you do your best during a workout?

While the post’s title seems like a dichotomy, striking the right balance between these two feelings ensures your ability to stay consistently active. Pushing yourself mentally usually revolves around two scenarios: getting the workout started and doing your best during the workout. Listening to yourself physically also has two main points: knowing when to pump the brakes during a workout and knowing when to skip a workout entirely (for health and wellness purposes). At the end of the post, I’ll share a story about a time when I managed to push myself mentally, and then not listen to myself physically to reveal how a balance of both sides are needed for long-term fitness and health.

Push Yourself Mentally

When everything is going well or our schedule is light, staying active can be relatively easy. However, most of life does not lend itself to the “best case scenario.” Getting out of bed when the alarm goes off at 5 or 6 AM for your morning jog or lugging yourself to the gym after a long day of work at 7 PM can be some of the most challenging circumstances we face when being active. The interesting thing about these situations is it’s primarily a test of mental strength (assuming you’re getting adequate sleep). Standing up out of bed or walking to the gym is not a physically harrowing task, yet it seems to make our legs feel like cinder blocks. Until we actually decide to start moving. Next time you’re not in the mood for your workout, commit to jogging for just 5 minutes. Or go to the gym and do just the warm-up. If you go, do this and still feel like you want to stop, then do so. You’ve fulfilled your commitment to yourself and should be proud that you took action, no matter how big or small. But once you start moving, you may also end up staying a little longer than expected.

And now that you’re moving, you may as well get the most out of every minute that you train. We’re busy people, so why spend 90 or more minutes in the gym (you know those people, the ones who do one set and then talk for 5 minutes with their buddies), when you can get just as good of a workout in 45 to 60 minutes and move on with your day? Keep moving, stay focused and only take your planned rest periods (or if you’re feeling very winded). If a friend wants to talk, exchange a quick word or two, but if they want to catch up on the last couple of weeks, tell them you’ll get in contact after the workout.

During our workouts we sometimes stop a few reps short or a few minutes early from what we can truly accomplish because of our thoughts. Maybe you don’t have a training/exercise plan so you’re not sure what to do next…so you don’t do anything at all. Or you get involved in a conversation with someone and by the time you’re done it’s been 20 minutes and you’ve started to cool down. Or your mind just starts to wander and you lose interest in the middle of the workout. Staying centered and focused is crucial to getting the most out of your workouts so you can get the results you want.

First, keep your eye on the prize. Remember why you are doing these workouts to begin with. For a sport? For your posture? To get into a dress or pants size? Next, create a positive, supportive environment to make sure you get going and then do all you can during exercise to “pump” yourself up. Listen to inspiring music, actually tell yourself that you can do that extra set, close your eyes and visualize that last sprint right before you do it. These are tactics elite athletes use to get the most out of themselves and their physical activity, so why not do the same for yourself? Maximize the benefit of your physical activity since you’re already doing it!

Listen to Your Body Physically

This is the counterpoint to pushing yourself mentally. When we psych ourselves up to “go the extra mile,” we need to make sure we do so safely. When working out, we tend to disregard small “twinges” and “tweaks” of discomfort (not to be confused with muscular burn during a set or sprint). Unfortunately, the adrenaline running through our body can decrease our feeling of pain and thereby suppress a more serious issue. “Pushing through it” often leads to even further problems. It’s better to stop a little short on one workout because of an unusual “twinge” than to be forced to stop for weeks because of an injury that happened because you did not listen to your body.

If the twinge is localized to one part of the body, you can always adjust your workout and focus on another area. For example, if you tweaked your leg during a squat, you can always do some rows or pushups. The rule is: if it hurts, don’t do it.

Finally, if you’re feeling under the weather, reconsider whether a workout will help or hurt. Workouts typically stress your immune system, in a good way. They break your body down a bit to teach it to get stronger. So if you’re just a little sluggish, then the workout may give your immune system a needed boost (do a lighter workout, though, just in case). But if you’re really starting to feel lousy, a workout may push your immune system over the cliff into a full-blown cold or sickness. Each person has a unique “line” that once they cross, they should avoid working out until they are feeling better. For me, it’s a bad sore throat with some body aches (which is the prelude to many other cold-symptoms).

My Story…and Lesson Learned

A couple years ago I was at a nutrition conference in San Diego and I had just completed a long day of going to talks, networking and mostly sitting from about 7 AM to 6 PM. Amazing how sitting and listening can be so draining! I had plans for dinner at 8 PM, so I only had a little while to get ready. So when I got back to my hotel room, it was very tempting to just kick back and relax for a couple hours. But I knew that there was a YMCA next door (only $5 to use) and I hadn’t been able to get to the gym the previous couple of days because of scheduling and travel. So I made a deal with myself: go and do a light warm-up, core and cardio workout (30 minutes) and call it a day. Hey, something is better than nothing!

So I went to the gym and got started. And of course by the end of my warm-up I was ready to do a lot more than a light workout. Turns out I did a bit too much! I remember pushing myself to do Farmer’s Walks (pretty much carrying two heavy weights around for a while) with two 75 pound dumbbells later in a workout that previously had me performing power hang cleans (a big powerful movement that worked similar muscles to the farmer’s walk). I felt a slight twinge in my upper shoulder but decided to finish off the last ten feet of the Farmer’s Walk anyway. By the time I woke up the next morning I could barely turn my neck and by the middle of the day my shoulder and back were in significant spasm. It was the last day of the conference and when I got in the taxi to take me to the airport later in the afternoon, my neck went into spasm every time the taxi driver sped up because the simple acceleration of the car made my neck fire in a similar way to the exercise that caused me to get hurt. Needless to say I stabilized my neck and shoulders as best as I could and took about a week off from working out. Thankfully I was back to normal within about a week and a half, but it goes to show that a “small twinge” can have larger issues associated with it. Lesson Learned: Ten less feet, or one week off?

Fitness and the Media

I wonder if this is how the media does it's research...

I wonder if this is how the media does it’s research…
Image: Stuart Miles and FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I enjoy reading the Health and Wellness section of the NY Times – well-written discussions and summaries of recent trends and research…with references to boot!  Certainly better than much of what is put out there on the Google-verse (honestly, who says I’m going to search the Internet anymore?).  It also raises awareness of the need to be active, which is an essential message in sedentary modern age.

However even the best journalism sometimes omits details that count, in my humble opinion.  This concern was recently highlighted as the result of sending some emails back to clients after they asked me whether certain Times articles shed a revolutionary light on the way we should approach training (short answer: no).

Unfortunately, not everyone has a fitness professional to run these questions by.  So some of these articles may lead readers to draw speculative, or unrealistic conclusions for themselves, resulting in unnecessary confusion, reduced self-confidence or even increased risk of injury. I realize that no accomplished writer is aiming for these results, but this can be where science-based journalists can take their pieces from good to great.

I generally find two issues occur at this higher level of writing related to fitness and the media:

1. Stories Posing as Fact

Fitness anecdotes and stories, while compelling and motivating, fail to identify their one weakness in the realm of research.  They are a study of 1 (or as us geeks call it, an n of 1).  Therefore, what may work for that person, won’t necessarily work for everyone, or you.  It’s never the author’s way or the highway – think critically about what is presented and if it’s really sound advice for you and your unique situation.  Only one person knows your body best – and that’s you.  Don’t ever forget that.

Story Under Discussion:  Fitness Crazed

Response to My Client:

“I just looked it up online and read it – and the author makes good points.  As in most aspects of life, simpler is better.  Consistency breeds results – the key is doing the movements properly and avoiding injury as you continue to add weight or intensity.  I’ve seen or heard about too many people injure their backs, knees, shoulders, etc. with loss of form.  Or consider what happened when you went faster a couple of weeks ago on the treadmill – we were able to work together to adjust your form so you used your abs and hips instead of lower back.

And despite the author’s preference for barbell training (or another person’s preference for marathon training), many people have gotten fit from other variations, like p90X, because they liked it and did it consistently.  It’s really whatever floats someone’s boat and keeps them motivated to stay active.

Trainers can fill many roles beyond dictating what to do (though that is an important role) – for some it’s motivation, accountability or paying attention to good form.  But yes, making things needlessly confusing and complex is useless.  My goal is to teach someone to fish, but if they want to keep coming back for fishing lessons, I’m not opposed because I know that even the best athletes in the world have knowledgeable trainers and coaches looking out for them.”

2. Inflated Implications or Unproven Conclusions

When taken to the extreme, this situation can become the equivalent of a promoter or agent hyping a new fighter – they’ve got the “next best thing.”  You’ve never seen anything like him before.  He’ll be the best, no doubt about it.  Then all the fans turn up for a first round knock out by the defending champ. At least the promoter (and maybe the fighter) got paid.

In the case of health or fitness research, the fighter is a new study that indicates a potential new correlation between two variables (i.e. egg intake vs. cholesterol levels, or exercise intensity in mice and an increase in a particular hormone related to fitness or health). If you actually read the studies, they are long, wordy and often…boring.  Unless you have a working knowledge of research design and basic statistics, you’re probably staring at the equivalent of a foreign language.

Journalists know this, and so rather than crossing their “t” and dotting their “i” by mentioning the statistical limitations and possible confounding factors of a research article, they only go for the sexy stuff – the breakthrough “conclusion.”  Unfortunately, the headline conclusion that everyone reads and acts upon can greatly misrepresent what actually occurred in the study – either by making the result seem more important than it really is, leaving out important limitations, or by jumping to a conclusion that is not supported by the study (correlation does not make causation).

Granted journalists need a hook, but once the reader is hooked, I hope journalists will do the reader justice by giving a fair and accurate representation of what truly occurred – the facts and just the facts.  No hype.  The bedrock of good journalism.  And if the journalist does not know how to interpret the studies, they should reach out to people who do.

Story Under Discussion:  For Fitness, Push Yourself

Response to My Client:

“Interesting study. A few facts to note:

1. It was a mice based study, not humans.

2. The mice that displayed supernatural results (103% I believe?) were in fact, supernatural. They were bred to over exhibit a particular metabolic protein (CRTC2) which amplified the results. It’s like saying taking steroids will make you gain muscle faster.  The normal mice gained 9%

3. Just because something improves results in the short run doesn’t necessarily lead to long term safety (I’d want to follow up on the heart health of those rats in a few years). See the steroid argument above as well.

4. All that being said, yes it’s probably better to work a bit harder if you can in Good Form. If you push yourself at the expense of your joint health you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul.

A few good sayings to train by:

1. Push yourself mentally, listen to yourself physically
2. Feel the effort in muscles, not in the joints
3. The harder you train, the harder you need to recover (low stress lifestyle, sleep, good nutrition)”

How Hard Should I Train? Stay Between the Lines

You want to work hard enough to get results.  But not so hard that you get injured and laid up for six weeks – and there goes those results.  How hard you should train depends on three factors:

  1. The goal – Are you trying to lose weight or win a powerlifting competition?
  2. Your current level of activity – Consider the feasibility and safety of training 5 days a week if you’re currently doing next to nothing.
  3. How you feel that day – Probably not worth going for personal bests on days you’re stressed out and running on 3 hours sleep.

Based on these factors, I’ve created a graphic that depicts how I approach working my clients (each peak represents a bout of training):

Training - Stay Between the Lines

How Hard Should I Train? Stay Between the Lines

In fact, you could say this picture works with any pursuit in life – do too little and nothing happens.  Do too much and you burnout.  But to stay on topic (I’m good at going off topic, eh?), using the graphic as a guide, here are some tips to get the most of your exercise:

Are You Reaching Your Minimum Effective Dose?

Too many times I’ve seen people sitting on a recumbent bike, slowly pedaling while reading the paper and sipping a latte.  Or women doing 50 gazillion reps with 2 pound weights, and wonder why they aren’t getting any results.

If it doesn’t feel like work, it’s probably not.  That means you should be sweating and slightly out of breath.  Or you should feel like you could only do a couple extra reps above your target count (which should stay below 20, ideally less than 15).

Balance Your Days

If you worked extra hard one day, it’s probably best not to go balls to the wall the day after (unless you’re an experienced athlete).  Remember, what’s hard for one person is not necessarily the same for another.  This depends on you.

If you feel especially sore or achy the day after a workout, do some moderate cardio (not high intensity intervals) and stretching/foam rolling to promote recovery.  Or if it’s a lifting day, don’t go for maximum lifts.  Notice how harder exercise days in the picture are often followed up with lower intensity days.

Build Gradually

If you’re new, or just getting back into exercising after a long layoff, your minimum effective dose and upper tolerance are probably lower than you think – it doesn’t require 2 hour training marathons, 5 days a week.  The key is to build a sustainable routine that keeps your body, mind and joints feeling good.  As you get better, your minimum effective dose, and upper limit will increase along with getting stronger, looking better, etc.

What Happens Above the Upper Tolerance Line?

Mostly exhaustion, and potentially pain and overtraining syndrome.  As crazy as it sounds, pain is your best friend – it tells you when you’ve f’ed up.  Listen to it.  If it’s during a single training bout, it could be anything from delayed-onset muscle soreness (when you can’t move for a week and your affected muscles feel swollen and tender) to muscle strains that require a week or two to recover.

If you push yourself repeatedly right at that upper limit line, you may go over it on the second, third or fourth consecutive training day.  Your body is telling you it needs to recover – and if you don’t listen it can eventually result in chronic issues like tendonitis, cartilage tears, and arthritis.

This doesn’t mean you need to quit training altogether, just don’t do things that hurt.  If you have a recurring issue, get it checked out by a physical therapist or qualified fitness professional to make sure you’re moving correctly.

TELL ME: What do you think of the graphic?  Does it help put things in perspective for you?  It’s about as artistic as I get 🙂

Four Key Post-Pregnancy Fitness Tips: Part 1

While pregnancy is a wonderful time for an expecting family, it can also be very challenging physically for the mom-to-be. The growing baby (with his/her weight), hormonal swings, impaired thermoregulatory ability (sweating) and altered metabolism can all work together to make climbing a flight of stairs difficult, let alone working out five days a week.

By the end of nine months, you will have a happy baby, but potentially a deconditioned body as well.  While the best defense for physical recovery after pregnancy is a good offense (staying reasonably active as long as possible during pregnancy), sometimes that doesn’t always happen.  So, now what?  Over the next two posts, I’ll be discussing four post-pregnancy fitness tips to get mom back on her feet and moving, before her baby does.

*Note: Today’s post will discuss getting your body up and moving again, gradually and safely.  The next post will discuss posture, movement patterns and nutrition.

1. Get your core and hips realigned and firing again

The baby bump does more than get a lot of well wishes from friends.  It has also probably tightened or weakened a number of your hip, core and lower back muscles.  This situation may also be exacerbated if you had a c-section or have diastasis recti (splitting of the abdominal wall due to the pressure of the baby pushing against your belly).  Often a result is what we call “lower crossed syndrome” where you’re standing more in a “swayback” position:

Lower Cross Syndrome

Lower Cross Syndrome
Courtesy of Zach Dechant Sports Performance Training


Getting your core and hips back in the game (and for some, the upper back muscles) is a crucial first step to exercising well again.  All of the forward weight will have likely made your chest, hip flexors and lower back tight while weakening your upper back muscles, trunk stabilizers (abs) and hip stabilizers (abudctors).  Here are a few stretches and exercises you can do to get everything in line again:

Hip Flexor Stretch

Chest Pinky Ball

Hip Pinky Ball

Cat/Cow (don’t force either movement, stay long through your spine, lightly engage your abs, return to neutral after doing a few repetitions):



Hip Hikes (you can put a small, soft ball between your hip and the wall to create pressure rather than your knee, focus on driving down through the heel of the standing leg – less is more with this exercise, don’t drive up through the raised leg or hip)

Mini Band Side Steps

*Interesting side note: If you have diastasis recti, you want to make sure you avoid spine-flexing movements that cause you to push your abdominals out like crunches and sit ups.  You need to focus on keeping your belly button drawn in and firm when moving and focus on trunk stability exercises (using your abs to stay steady, rather than actively moving your spine) like planks, side planks, cable extensions/Palloff presess and dead bugs.

2. Focus on consistency before intensity

Don’t try to hit the gym, or the ground running just as hard as you did before you got pregnant – unless you’re Paula Radcliffe.  Your body can start to decondition within a few weeks of stopping exercise, so if you’ve been doing little, to no exercise in the previous few months, you’ve got some catching up to do.  Your body has also gone through a number of changes (potential diastasis recti, c-section, altered hip/core firing patterns from the baby bulge) that could leave you at increased risk for injury if you go straight back into intense exercise.  Finally, if you’re not sleeping well (which is to be expected with newborns), your body isn’t setup to adequately recover from highly intense workouts.

If you want to get moving again, first get clearance from your doctor.  C-sections typically require a little more recovery time.  Once cleared, focus on moving a little bit each day, especially since you probably won’t be able to stay away from your newborn for more than a little while at a time.  Getting your core and hips firing again is a great place to start (see tip #1 above).

As far as intensity, consider starting at around 30-50% of your pre-pregnancy loads, but by all means feel free to do less if something feels out of sorts.  Bodyweight and resistance band exercises – squats, modified or wall/ledge pushups, resistance band rows/pulldowns, step ups, core exercises – in addition to walking/light jogging are a convenient way to get some exercise in at home while still being near your baby.  If you notice that you have rounded/hunched shoulders and forward head posture, consider doing more pulling/rowing exercises than pushing.  If you have access to a gym and dumbbells/cable machines, that’s fine too.  Again, start lighter than normal – you have plenty of time to build back up.

*Interesting side note: Research has shown that bouts of high intensity exercise (intervals, HIIT/Crossfit style classes) can potentially increase amounts of lactic acid in breast milk, which may not be appealing to breastfeeding babies.  If you do choose to perform HIIT while breastfeeding, you may want to feed your child prior to exercise, and/or wait a couple hours after HIIT exercise to let the lactic acid clear from your body.

That’s it for Part 1 – check out the next two tips in early September.  Let me know in the comments below if either of these tips were useful for you!

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