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What does it mean to "listen to your body"?

Updated: Jul 28, 2023

Coach Cassandra doing a back row

Feeling sore? Listen to your body. Lacking energy? Listen to your body. Struggling with an exercise? Listen to your body.

I give out this advice a lot, but what the bleep does ‘listen to your body’ actually mean? We all need a little help tuning into the signals our body is sending us, so let’s break it down.

How to tune in and listen to your body

‘Listening’ to your body simply means paying attention to the signals it is sending you. And I don’t just mean the obvious stuff like your foot turning purple and throbbing with pain. You can practice while you’re not working out. Think about the sensations you are feeling right now… maybe your neck is feeling tight, for instance. What could your body be telling you? (Maybe that you need to stretch more often.)

text that says "slow down and focus on how it feels"

When you are in the middle of a workout, slow down and focus on how it feels. Pause if you need to. Watch for specifics, like burning muscles, achy joints, mental frustration or moments where you slip into bad form. The more you tune into your body, the easier it will become to identify and differentiate feelings – “Did I totally fail on that exercise, or has it just activated muscles I don’t regularly use?” – and make connections between your actions and the way your body responds.

Don’t be afraid to adjust

Even the fittest people use modifications when they need to. That’s because taking modifications (or exercise regressions) in order to keep moving through a workout is not a cop out, it’s a win. You’re listening to your body in order to do what you can to prevent injury and keep moving your fitness forward. Sometimes, your body may tell you that it’s just not ready for a certain exercise. If you have ongoing troubles with joints, you may already know that there are some exercises you should avoid altogether. This is exactly what modifications were made for!

picture of a woman doing a crunch and text that says "even the fittest people use modifications"

If you’re taking the modification because you’re not ready to pull off the classic or progressed exercise, or you’re easing into a training style you’ve never tried before, then you’re doing exactly what you should be doing to build up strength and endurance to go further in a future workout. Be patient and consistent, and the progress will come.

Know your pain from your gains

One of the trickiest things to master is knowing the difference between ‘good pain’ and ‘bad pain’. Because while some may say “no pain, no gain,” we don’t actually want you to break down in tears, or straight up break down.

The muscle soreness or stiffness you feel in the days after a training session is called DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), and it’s a sign that your muscles have been working and are starting to benefit from your efforts. It’s caused by small, microscopic tears made in your muscle and tissue during training, and while it may make you walk funny the next day, it is helping your muscles grow stronger in the long run.

two people holding theirs knees in pain and text saying "is it DOMS or an injury"

On the flip side, if you feel pain in your joints (not just your muscles), you feel something ‘pop’ or tear during a workout, experience swelling, or soreness persists for more than a week, you might have injured yourself. Learning to read these signals is even trickier if you’re a beginner, so take it slow and if you’re not sure, stop training and talk to a doctor or physical therapist.

Not sure which one applies to you? Try a VERY slow and unweighted version of an exercise first, taking your body through the general range of motion required. If pain is sharp or your movement is restricted, you’re better off resting that area until the pain has settled.

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