“If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.”
It’s easy to read this quote from Fred DeVito, EVP of Exhale Spa, and go, “Duh.” But how often do we hold back from really challenging ourselves in a workout and wonder why we’re not seeing the results we desire?
“A bit of discomfort is how we grow,” says Jacque Crockford, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and exercise physiology content manager at the American Council on Exercise. “Our comfort zone is like a cozy, safe bubble. Where growth and change and magic happens is just on other side of that bubble. It’s not in another galaxy — it’s just on the outside.”
This means it’s totally attainable. And each time you give just a little more, not only does that help you develop a new comfort zone that’s bigger than the last one, it also adds up. If you give 1% somewhere in each workout, soon you’ll be 10% better or farther, Crockford says.
What it literally takes to go farther is intuitive: Make the exercise harder. If you’re strength training, do more reps, lift heavier or move slower or faster. You could also hold a move (such as at the bottom of a squat), or if an exercise is supposed to be static, move (Think: pulsing in a lunge).
“It doesn’t have to be a large jump,” Crockford says. “You want to overload your body just a little bit outside your comfort zone to make gains in whatever you are trying to improve,” such as strength or lean muscle mass.
You can make these adjustments when working out solo or in a fitness class, whether or not the instructor says to go harder.
You only need to push 1% harder if you’re new to exercise, Crockford says. Not much. But tell that to your mind.
“It’s our brain that holds us back most of the time,” Crockford says. “It goes, ‘That’s new, that’s scary, that’s something I can’t do.’ But your body is capable of anything you want it to do.”
To empower your body to do what it already can, you can use external or internal motivation.
If you’re more extrinsically motivated, something like working out with a partner who’s just a bit above your fitness level may help. However, if you have past negative experiences exercising with others, this may de-motivate you, Crockford cautions.
Other external motivators may be a healthy reward such a massage or new workout clothes if you reach a certain workout goal such as doing 5 real pushups or setting a new time record.
If you are more intrinsically motivated, think about why you’re doing what you’re doing — and dig deep, because the answer isn’t to fit into a certain pants size or look “better.”
“Really understanding this can be the thing you need in a critical moment when you decide, ‘I don’t want to do this, but I can and I will,’” Crockford says.
For example, maybe you want to be healthier and around longer for your kids, get back the life where you felt happiest or regain confidence. Or perhaps you exercise for a someone who can’t, and this is a reminder you have a body and are healthy and able to do things others can’t.
Find your why, and when you find your comfort zone is getting too comfy, use that to push you.
Discomfort is a given when you’re pushing to the next level in a workout. But if you experience pain, it’s best to stay in your comfort zone. Knowing the difference can be tricky.
Discomfort is, “This is new and a bit uncomfortable, but I can be here one more breath,” Crockford explains. Oftentimes you’ll get emotional signals that you are just on the edge of your comfort zone she adds. Any hint of fear or uncertainty is a cue to see if you can take that challenge and be there for a moment.
On the other hand, pain means stop. Don’t push it.
If you aren’t sure of the difference, it can help to work with a trainer. They can help you understand it’s normal to be sweating and out of breath, which can ease any fears of pushing harder. They can also help you recognize physical pain and avoid overreaching or overtraining.