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Working Out Shouldn’t Hurt and Your Diet Shouldn’t be Miserable

How you eat and move your body should make you feel good about yourself and make your life better. Fitness should not cause pain, and your diet shouldn’t rule your life.

It seems like more than ever I hear people talk about how “brutally sore they are” and how “everything hurts.” Despite causing pain, people continue to perform workouts that hurt. Some people are treating pain like it’s a badge of honor (It almost killed me and it hurts to walk, but I did it!).

I can’t believe this actually needs to be said: your workouts should not hurt. They should not cause you pain. If you’re constantly in pain from your workouts, something is wrong and needs to be addressed immediately.

With women, here's an example of what I hear at the gym:

“Jill, I’m exhausted all the time, and I’m starting to have constant aches in my knees and back.”

“Well, what do you do in a typical week?”

“I strength train three days per week. I do at least an hour of cardio most days. I do Yoga and a couple other group classes. Oh, and I perform high intensity intervals a few times per week too. And I’m training for a Marathon and am considering competing in a powerlifting meet because I’ve heard they’re fun.”

Trying to do everything simultaneously; women do this frequently. Some of us fall into the trap of thinking if some (in this case, exercise) is good, then more must be better. So we add an extra workout, or five, to our weekly routine.

Soon after drastically increasing the physical activity things hurt that didn’t hurt before. Energy levels steadily decline. Motivation that was once abundant wanes.

The solution is fairly simple: choose the main thing you want to achieve, and then scale back the rest. For example, if you like to compete in bike races, triathlons, or any other competitive activity, that should be your main focus. Everything else should complement that goal, not take away from it.

In this example I usually suggest scaling back strength training to two workouts per week (via minimalist workouts, of course); this way you still reap the many benefits without burning out.

Even if you don’t compete in events, you still need to prioritize your activities, and they can change over time. You can’t lift weights five times per week, do hours of cardio, take group classes, and do HIIT training frequently and expect to survive for very long.

Something has to give. If you don’t choose wisely, your body will force you to with acute, and eventually chronic, injuries.

This is why when people email me saying their goal is to “lose fat, but get strong, build some muscle, and improve their conditioning” I tell them to pick one for at least a few months and then move on to another goal. What is the main thing you want to accomplish? Perhaps you want to lose fat — focus on losing fat. Once you achieve that goal then move on to something else, like getting stronger.

You can do anything, but you can’t do everything all at once.

To summarize this section:

  • Working out should not hurt. If an exercise causes pain, stop. Check your form. If you’re certain you’re doing it correctly but still experience pain, use an alternate exercise. (E.g., if barbell back squats bother your back, try goblet squats or barbell front squats.) And resist the temptation to focus on the exercises you can’t do; focus solely on those you can do.

  • Have one priority at a time. Choose your main goal and stick to it. You can switch to a different one later. Organize your routine accordingly and make sure additional components complement your goal and don’t take away from it.

  • You don’t have to finish every workout exhausted. Your workouts can actually make you feel good and more energized than when you began. It’s my belief that most of the time, they should.

  • Working out is not punishment. Never forget this. A workout should never be done because you ate too much or hate how you look.

Now that we’ve covered why working out shouldn’t cause pain, let’s move on to diet.

Your Diet Shouldn’t be Miserable

Unless you’re competing in some type of physique competition that demands very low levels of body fat, you likely don’t need some complex, calorie-counting, food-weighing, huge list of “foods to avoid at all costs” type of diet.

Personally, I’m partial to The Diet That Has No Name way of eating. The guidelines are simple and there are no foods you have to avoid. This means no obsessing, no guilt, and no shame.

You should follow an eating style that you can sustain long-term. This is why I’m not a fan of typical fad diets because most people cannot commit to them long-term.

Want to know if you should follow that new diet or The Diet That Has No Name mentioned above? Answer this question: this new eating style/diet you’re planning to try, will you be able to follow it six months from now? One year from now?

If the answer isn’t yes, then don’t do it. Look for something else.

Let’s wrap up this section with a Public Service Announcement: ladies, we are told by magazines and media that we should always be on a diet. That we should always look for tips that trick us in to eating less. That we should feel guilty when we indulge in our favorite foods. That we should avoid entire food groups. That we should only eat salad when we go out to dinner.

You don’t have to spend your life diet-hopping. You don’t need to ask permission to eat anything. You don’t have to try the latest fad diet because your friend is. You don’t have to explain why you eat (or don’t eat) certain foods.

Get off the diet roller-coaster and find some simple, sustainable, enjoyable eating guidelines you can follow long-term.

Let’s End This Madness

Working out should not hurt. If an exercise causes pain or your workouts are leaving you drained of energy, change things immediately.

Your diet should not be a miserable endeavor. Stop diet-hopping and adopt simple guidelines.

And let’s add one final thing: your actions (how you eat and choose to move your body) should never been driven by guilt and shame. You simply can’t become the best version of yourself if you’re constantly tearing yourself down.

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