It’s good to push for improvement, but not through real pain

Living a physically active life comes with an inherent injury risk. Sprained ankles, strained muscles and minor scrapes all come with the territory. It’s part of the deal, but there are some ways to reduce risk within exercise programs.

This week, I will share some keys to risk reduction and present an exercise that is basically risk free for already active, pain-free people.

I couldn’t even begin to estimate the number of times I’ve sustained little injuries while exercising. I have had overuse injuries (tendinitis, etc.), cuts, bruises, strained muscles — you name it. If I think back, it’s obvious that most were preventable.

However, there is something to be said about pushing the body past comfortable limits to achieve better results. This physiological necessity is known as progressive overload, where muscles are forced to contract against higher resistance or for a longer duration than before. This overload is what helps the body grow, adapt and become stronger.

Regardless of whether the activity is designed to develop muscular strength or cardiovascular endurance, the exerciser should be consistently pushing the envelope to drive better results.

So, the question is, how can an exerciser manage progressive overload without increasing injury risk? The answer relies on multiple factors, but my best advice is to listen to the body. Pain thresholds are different for everyone, but one must recognize the difference between a “good” pain and a “bad” pain.

An example of good pain is the burning felt in the quadriceps during a squat. The pain is centered in the belly of the muscle, and it feels almost like a radiating heat. A good pain is tolerable and grows more intense as the activity continues. Another example is the burning felt in the lungs during a long run.

A bad pain is sharp and unanticipated. Usually, the pain is within a joint and feels nothing like a muscular burn. This type of pain is more of a stabbing feeling and is a sign that the activity or movement may be harming the ligaments, tendons or connective tissue.

Experienced, driven exercisers usually operate right on the line between good pain and bad pain. They usually don’t attempt this everyday, but occasionally they feel an obligation to test their boundaries and push the limit.

This is part of understanding one’s body and knowing exactly where to draw the line between performance improvement and safety.

For those with some exercise experience, this week’s exercise can be performed without much worry about injury. The only risk factor that I can think of involves the lower back and/or neck, but the exercise is performed slowly enough that even those concerns are largely mitigated.

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1. Select a medium-weight medicine ball.

2. Lie face up with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor with your toes up against a wall.

3. Hold the medicine ball over your chest with your arms fully outstretched.

4. Sit up to place the medicine ball against the wall.

5. Hold it there by applying pressure with your abdominals and arms.

6. Continue holding for 20 seconds, then slowly lower back to the starting position.

7. Perform two sets of five repetitions.

The reason this exercise is so safe comes down to speed. The prescription requires holding in an isometric contraction for 20 seconds, so there’s no momentum that could damage joint structures. It’s the type of exercise that’s perfect for those looking to challenge the core without serious risk. So, let’s get to work!

Director of business development and population health solutions for Quest Diagnostics, Matt Parrott began this column 20 years ago at Little Rock. He has a doctorate in education (sport studies), a master’s in kinesiology and is certified by the American College of Sports Medicine.

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