Whether you’re a gym regular or not, you’ve probably heard the phrase “Feel the burn!” This familiar bit of gym jargon is one of the most widespread misconceptions in fitness: the bigger the burn, the bigger the benefit. Right?! Wrong. Betting on the burn to reach your fitness goals may actually backfire. Let me explain.
There Are Two Types of Burn
The burning sensation you feel when taxing your body can have multiple culprits. One is good, but the other is pretty pointless.
First, yes: Muscular overload makes your muscles quiver. And if you’re looking to build your muscles, you want that to occur. According to muscle expert Brad Schoenfeld, muscle growth takes place only when the stress placed on your muscles moves past your current capacity. So, when you lift more weight than your muscles are able to comfortably handle, it creates tiny tears in your muscles. Your body wants to naturally maintain stability, so it will respond by repairing those tears. That adaptation to greater demand will produce muscle growth (Schoenfeld, 2013).
But you can also experience “the burn” when localized muscular fatigue kicks in. Try this: Hold your arms directly out to the side holding your phone or a small water bottle. Now, start making small arm circles and count to 100. Your shoulders will start to burn. Yes, this is a lot like the feeling you would get doing shoulder raises with a heavy weight. But, do you think you’re getting the same benefit from doing arm circles with the light object? Of course not! The heavy weight causes the overload described above, which causes the burn feeling. Localized muscular fatigue creates a similar sensation, but not a similar result.
This all means that if you’re constantly searching for the burn, do you really know if the work is beneficial? You can certainly try to focus on muscle overload, rather than localized fatigue, but there are other ways to know if you’re on the right track.
What’s Better Than The Burn
It’s understandable how “the burn” has become so desirable. We want immediate feedback we’re on the right track when working out. And it seems to reason, if we can use being out of breath as a valid indicator of a quality cardio interval, then there must be a similar sensation to aim for in strength training. Turns out, there is—but it’s not necessarily “the burn.”
Muscle growth requires fatiguing the targeted muscles within the anaerobic energy system. That means you must lift heavy enough weight that at the end of 60-90 seconds you don’t want to perform another repetition and you don’t want to talk anymore. So, that same breathy feeling you get when doing burpees during a HIIT workout should be your goal during strength workouts, if muscle growth is what you’re after.
How The Burn Misleads
There’s more! Some heavy hitting, full-body strength training moves may produce the breathy feeling, but not the burn. But don’t stop them! I promise they are well worth the effort. Push-ups and pull-ups are two great examples. These functional, full-body exercises will fatigue you globally (all over) but may never give you the burning sensation a slow, heavy set of biceps curls might. For overall fitness and highest calorie burn, the push-up or pull-up will outweigh the biceps curl every day!
Bottom line: Burn is not always a reliable indicator of how hard you are working. If you feel it, accept it and move on. But there’s no need to chase it to validate your workout. Searching for general or overall fatigue is a better goal; sequencing exercises together that leave you feeling a full-body sensation of work that is either challenging and comfortable or challenging and uncomfortable will produce health and wellness objectives needed for enhanced daily living and weight loss.
And, one final piece of advice: If you’re just getting started, coming back from injury, or experiencing burn-out from working out hard for an extended period, doing anything is better than nothing. Working your body through a variety of movement patterns with a quality range of motion—whether you experience any amount of discomfort—should be celebrated. A body in motion stays in motion, and ultimately, that’s what is needed!