THE BLOG
11/20/2011 11:18 am ET Updated Jan 20, 2012

No Pain, No Gain -- When Is it Enough?

During her visit to my house last Christmas my mother made me watch "The Biggest Loser" with her. I had never seen this show before and I was immediately in awe of how hard the trainers pushed the contestants. I know that the contestants are somewhat monitored to prevent things like heart attacks, etc. The whole thing made me wonder -- what about their joints? In particular the knees and back? How do those trainers have any idea when a disc is about to blow or a meniscus is about to give out? In my opinion, the trainers push the contestants way past what I would consider a safe exertion zone for exercise. I wonder how the weight results would change if they didn't push the envelope so hard on the physical exertion.

For years weight loss has been the big sell for the fitness industry. The harder, longer you workout, the more you lose, right? A TIME magazine cover story last year revealed that this is not necessarily so. Apparently, when most people begin an exercise program, they begin to give themselves permission to eat more high-caloric foods that they would ordinarily avoid. How much you sweat, pant or burn is irrelevant for weight loss if you can't maintain a healthy diet.

There are many physical, emotional and I would even dare say, spiritual benefits to exercising. Yet, the one that motivates people to begin a program is still typically weight loss. The message pushed by the media and the fitness industry in general is "no pain, no gain." It is this belief that allows clients to go past boundaries with their bodies and injure themselves. Most people can't tell good pain from bad pain and most trainers have bought into the "no pain, no gain" theory themselves.

The Pilates industry has benefited a lot from this fallacy. Many of our devotees are people who were injured performing other forms of exercise. A basic tenet of what we teach in Pilates is body awareness. Not only how you hold your frame in space, how you walk, how you sit and stand but how your body feels. Even in the Pilates industry, in order to please clients, many trainers follow their lead and push past the point of hard work, into the realm of straining. Straining is the beginning of an injury. It is important that you work with a trainer who looks for your input in determining how far you should be pushed. Most clients don't ask to stop because their perception of the exercise is that it is "hard." In their minds the "harder" it is, the better the result.

A good workout does not need to beat you up; in fact, it can lift you up! If you are engaged in your workouts and integrating your body and mind, you will know when it is time to rest. You want to work yourself right to the edge of exertion. Pay attention to your breath. If you are not able to breathe through an exercise, you need to stop. Your body overall should stay supple, not locked into positions. Remind yourself frequently to move with "effortless effort." Your body should move with the power of a whip, which is fluid and graceful, not of a hammer which is rigid and non- malleable.

What is your sensation after performing an exercise? You should never feel pain in the knees or elbows. If the wrists hurt it should only be for a brief period of time when learning how to properly support body weight on the hands. The neck should only get tired when the abdominals are deconditioned or near the end of an abdominal progression. Never sacrifice on form when it comes to the lumbar spine. Back positions must be precise. If your abdominal work is fatiguing your back, it is time to stop. If the lower back feels exertion, it is important to separate muscle fatigue from the feeling of compression. Muscle fatigue can vary person to person but should never include tingly electric sensations that radiate. Ask your trainer what the focus is of the exercise and make sure you are targeting that area. In Pilates, much of the work is "full bodied," which means there should be a feeling of exertion all over your body.

A client of mine told me she heard of a Pilates studio where participants sometimes puked in the bathroom. Although no reputable Pilates instructor would teach in this manner, I could tell that my client wondered if we were working "hard" enough. No matter what your discipline, your workout should make you break a sweat but not push you to the point of nausea. How can that be good? Your body should feel as if it is heating up internally. At different points in the session you should experience quivering in your muscles or a burning sensation. Some exercises should take all of your mental energy to perform and leave you feeling exhausted. I often wonder if the puking clients were in any better shape than my own. I think not.

The next time you work out look for your own feeling of zen. Notice how your mind clears, how your energy lifts, how your mood changes. Keep yourself focused on the process of your discipline rather than just the result. Fitness is part of a healthy lifestyle. Only by changing the way in which you live can you truly make changes to your body that will stick. This week's promos for "The Biggest Loser" show the contestants strapped to a Mack truck to see which team can tow it the farthest. While this may not be the healthiest thing for the body or even the quickest way to lose weight -- it does make for good television.