5 Signals to Watch for While Working Out

Your body is constantly talking to you, and one of the skills that will help you exercise most effectively is learning to listen to what it says. Here are five messages your body may send you and what you can do to answer them.

Disclaimer: I am a fitness professional with certifications and experience, but I am not a doctor. I can give advice and opinions based on personal experience and study, but that’s it. Do not take this for medical advice, and if your body isn’t recovering or acting right, go see a doctor!

1. Tightness in one or more muscles

Normally the body becomes looser as the day goes on, and the very act of being awake serves to stretch the muscles and allow them to lengthen. This means that you will naturally be more tight in the morning after waking up and less tight in the evenings after being awake for 10-14 hours. At any time, it’s a good idea to stretch your muscles slowly and thoroughly before exercising. This allows blood flow to start being redirected supporting athletic movements and serves as a warm-up for the contractions and extensions you’ll be doing as part of the workout itself.

Day to day, spend a little more time on those muscles that seem excessively stiff or that seem to impede range of motion more than usual. These are muscles which you have likely worked on over the last couple exercise sessions, and the healing/recovery process can lead to tightness. Each muscle group should be stretched for 20-30 seconds at minimum, usually in two sessions of 10-15 seconds each. For the very stiff muscles we mentioned, stretch for an additional 15-20 seconds overall to help loosen up.

If a muscle starts to become tight during a workout, you may be close to a muscle cramp or “Charlie Horse”. This is a painful muscle contraction that can last several seconds to several minutes. They usually result from trying to contract a muscle quickly and strongly at just the wrong time. To help prevent that, if you start to feel muscles stiffen, pause your workout and stretch. I recommend 45-60 seconds of static stretching or myofacial release in these instances.

2. Joint Stiffness or Pain

This one is my personal most frequent complaint. Joint pain, stiffness, and decreased range of motion can arise from many causes, the most frequent being past injury or over-training. This can feel like the joint is “catching” when you try to go through a movement, like it’s too weak to support weight, or feel a spectrum of pain sensations from dull ache to sharp/shooting.

If you are experiencing stiffness without pain, which is something I see most frequently in knees and shoulders, the remedy may be as simple as scaling back the weight and doing a simple warm-up set with increasing range of motion each rep, until you reach the normal range for that joint. Generally you will feel a slight “pop” as the joint moves past the stopping point you were experiencing before. Examples are light squats until your knee is allowing a full hinge, or rotating your shoulder 360 degrees with light or no weight.

If you are experiencing stiffness with pain or just pain by itself, stop doing whatever it is you’re doing and evaluate the situation.

  • Do you have a prior injury which makes the joint loose, stiff or weak? This may be an issue of conditioning and not an injury. If you can continue with lower weight, then it’s probably safe to do so. If it becomes painful even at lower weights, you likely need to end the workout for the day. And no, “one last rep” is not okay.
  • Is this the first time this has ever happened? Stop right away and let the joint rest, as this has a high chance of being an injury due to too much weight or bad form. Stretch gently and through a full range of motion for the joint. If it still hurts, end your workout. If the pain fades, try the motion without weight to check for pain. If it recurs, stop the workout. If not, pay strict attention to form for several lower weight reps. If pain comes back any time, call it a day.

3. Muscle Pain or Uncontrolled Contractions

Muscle tightness can easily lead to muscle pain in several forms. Examples are: deep, dull ache like (or worse than) soreness; sharp, shooting pain like being hit/stabbed/burned; or, a contraction that you cannot control. Most muscle pain falls into one or more of these descriptions.

Sharp pain happens quickly and is usually from a muscle tear or strain above what your body can cope with. If not tended to immediately these can lead to persistent injury for days or weeks. An example would be trying a Deadlift with heavy weight and bad form, resulting in “throwing out” your back. Stop the workout and slowly stretch the muscle as you rest it. Go easy for a a couple days to assess the injury, and see a doctor if it gets worse (or doesn’t improve) in 3-4 days.

Uncontrolled contractions, often called “Charley Horses”, are basically cramping which occurs in the muscle due to one of several reasons. Common causes include: insufficient stretching, dehydration, exercising in the heat, and muscle fatigue. They manifest as a strong, tight, painful, uncontrolled contraction in the muscle, usually lessening over a few minutes. Treatment for a muscle cramp is generally the one thing you don’t want to do: stretch and massage it until the contraction goes away! If you often experience cramping, make sure you are stretching before workouts and drinking enough water throughout the day. Also make sure your diet contains adequate nutrition, especially calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Deficiencies in these minerals can lead to cramping, as well. You can usually continue to exercise after dealing with a cramp, but may need to decrease the intensity of the workout for that day.

If you exercise, you know the dull ache of sore muscles (and you probably enjoy it a little). Soreness is a healthy feeling because it means that you worked your muscles thoroughly enough to force them to heal and adapt. This is how you get stronger. Healthy soreness usually takes 12-36 hours to set in, but sometimes you get immediate deep-seated pain that is like, or worse than, soreness during the workout itself. This can be due to simply working at too high of an intensity, from heavy weights to really high reps to extreme cardio sessions, over-training is not a good thing. At best, the dull pain will fade into soreness and you’ll recover as normal. At worst, you may develop a condition called rhabdomyolysis, which is the breakdown of muscle tissue beyond what is healthy. Deep, persistent soreness, flu-like symptoms, and “Coca Cola” colored urine are all common signs. Rhabdo is not easy to get, and the average person probably can’t workout until they get it, because it’s very difficult to work that far past your usual abilities. You are more likely to get Rhabdo from a car accident, than from a fitness class, but it’s worth mentioning.

4. Nausea or Vomiting

In the fitness world, I typically see gastrointestinal issues come on from two causes: pre-workout food choices and pushing too hard. Lets talk about food first.

Eating before a workout can be bad. Also, not eating before a workout can be bad. So what to do? You need to make healthy, smart food choices and eat them at the right time. A 300-400 calorie meal about 1.5 hours before a workout is a good strategy. It gives your body time to digest what you’ve eaten so that the energy and nutrients are available for athletic endeavors. A good macronutrient mix for a pre-workout meal is about 60% carbohydrates, 33% protein, and 7% fat. This gives you the fuel to get moving and the protein to rebuild muscle, while avoiding the possibility of building fat stores post-workout. Many good health shakes and bars on the market will fit this breakdown incredibly well, you just need to check the label. In a 300 calorie bar, for instance, you would look for about 45g carbohydrate, 25g protein, and 2g fat. For after the workout, I recommend a recovery protein shake, with 75% calories from protein and 25% calories from carbs (no fat).

A big fat note on eating: Chipotle before CrossFit classes is a bad idea. It’s really only delicious in one direction!

The second common cause of nausea or vomiting is pushing too hard. You know you’ve hit this point when there is no other reason for the stomach distress other than how intensely you’ve been exercising. The simple solution: dial it down a notch, either by slowing down, reducing weight, or moving into a cool down phase. If you get to the point where you are becoming nauseated from working too hard, and you don’t back off a bit, then you are going to vomit. It will not be pretty. It will be embarrassing. Try to avoid it.

5. Extreme Fatigue or Tiredness

There are a lot of things that can feed into feelings of extreme fatigue, weakness, and unresponsiveness. Here’s the list of things to do or avoid if extreme fatigue is becoming an issue for you:

  • Check your diet. Are you getting enough calories to fuel your body at the level you’re pushing it to? Are you getting enough nutrients and vitamins?¬† Are you drinking enough water?
  • Caffeine is great, except when it’s not. Do you need multiple cups of coffee/Red Bull/etc to function each day? Chances are you have a caffeine tolerance and it’s getting more pronounced. Dial back the caffeine intake over the next few weeks so your body learns how to function without it again.
  • You need Rest Days! Your body is a pretty awesome machine, but it needs time to repair the damage done to it by exercise and every day life. If you just can’t get moving, then you may need to stop moving and rest! Every week you should have at least 1 total rest day, and many people probably need at least 2 total rest days. Other than stretching, take a chill pill and relax!
  • Injuries and Sickness are Rough. Your body uses a lot of resources to fix itself, so when you get injured or sick your energy stores are mostly going towards repairing the damage that’s been done.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, but it should form a good basis for learning to listen to your body effectively.