Mind & Motion

It burns when it’s working!?

Posted in Fitness Tips by Meghan Pickrell on April 23, 2011

I couldn't find the grandpa and kid. boo.

So do remember the old commercial for aftershave depicting a grandpa and his grandson? The grandfather is standing in the bathroom with his 10 year old grandson teaching him how to shave. The young child watches and mirrors his elderly grandfather with curiosity. Post shaving the Grandpa, takes out his aftershave and rubs it onto his face exclaiming, “It burns when it’s working!!!” (Now repeat this is in a Jewish NY accent – it’s funnier) The child is somewhat horrified.

This commercial always made me laugh. The grandpa is funny- he takes his shaving very seriously. The child is innocent, taking it all in. But it also leads to an interesting question – does burning mean that it’s working?

Most of the time in our workout we are trying to connect to something visceral in the experience. Sometimes that comes in a feeling of the burn. A burning sensation is due to a build-up of lactic acid during a short strenuous exercise. It is also thought that muscle burning, particularly post-exercise is due to microscopic tears in the muscle which are then repaired and strengthened (hence your muscles become larger and stronger).

I believe that the feelings of muscle burn can be charted on a bell curve. Those who are low tone (don’t have much muscle tissue) won’t feel their muscles working as much. This is primarily due to the fact that they don’t have a lot of tissue. Those at the top of the curve have enough tone and tissue to actually feel their muscles working- hence, feeling the burn. However, because our body is so smart and adaptable you start heading down the other side of the curve. At the other end of the curve, the muscles have strengthened, adapted to a specific exercise and burning feelings will diminish (this is why we would increase the weight if necessary).

Depending on where you are on the curve for that particular muscles group in the context of an exercise will determine how you feel your muscles. Basing exercise effectiveness on a feeling is tricky. A burning feeling can be good if you are keeping good form and are focusing on how you are moving the joint. Burning is not necessarily helpful if you are so fatigued that your form is compromised. At that point you are teaching the body a negative pattern. You may feel the burn which could be great. You could also be performing a perfectly effective exercise without much sensation. The focus should be on how you are performing the movement, the burning is a result. Get it?

Exercise effectiveness should be based on the body, how it’s reacting to varying forces and the intent of the exercise. Remember the feelings are a result, not the intention. The intention is to move through space. The more you understand gravity, weight and counterbalancing forces, the more you will understand how your muscles should respond. Remember, you may or may not feel the burn.

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