A former fitness pro explains how to know when you're pushing yourself too hard.

Sarah Kurchak
November 09, 2017

I once took a face-plant in the middle of a set of plyometric push-ups. One second, I was a machine, effortlessly clapping between each rep and springing into the next one. The next second, my arms gave out and I went face first into the gym floor. I was a little stunned at first but I quickly laughed it off—endorphins are a hell of a drug—and gleefully launched into my next set. 

As a fitness professional in the prime of youth (I was in my mid-20s when I face-planted) and the peak of shape, I considered limits the enemy. It felt good to push them. It felt even better to ignore them, or insist that they didn't exist at all. So I’d write off any signs of fatigue as weakness and keep pushing through that next set, sprint, or session. And when my trembling muscles and broken brain did finally force me to give up, I told myself that I’d have to do better the next time.

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Then I started teaching a number of high intensity interval, martial arts, and cycling classes. I’d blast songs like “No Limits” by 2 Unlimited and guide my students through the exact same process. 

It wasn't until I was in charge of other people’s wellbeing that I started to question my fraught relationship with limits. I’d been happy to beat up my own body beyond all rationality in the pursuit of toughness—and then beat my brain up when my body failed—but I had both a professional and moral obligation to keep the people who took my classes safe, healthy, and challenged in responsible ways. A lot of what I was doing to myself, it turned out, was none of those things.

Why we push ourselves too hard

I was hardly alone when it came to my limits issue. Many of my students shared it. Most of my colleagues did, too. In fitness, it’s often hard to find the line between being strong and being reckless. The messages we receive are all about pushing beyond our limits, not quitting, and achieving the impossible, which doesn't always leave room for things like listening to your body and knowing when it is actually time to slow down or stop. There are no cool t-shirt slogans or high-BPM pop songs about backing off of your resistance training when you can no longer execute a move with proper form, or slowing down when your pulse starts climbing too close to your maximum heart rate. 

Even if you can manage to accept that you are a mortal with at least some limitations, it isn’t always easy to recognize these limits as you approach them. A lifetime of being encouraged to push yourself to the extreme in phys ed, in the gym, and in life in general leaves many of us so disconnected from our bodies and brains that we don’t recognize the signs of fatigue when they start to approach.

There’s also a layer of guilt and self-doubt that comes along with trying to figure out when it’s time to quit. On the rare occasions when I did recognize the signs in myself during my workouts, I’d immediately start to wonder whether I was just being lazy or weak, or whether I was possibly subconsciously sabotaging myself, and then I’d keep going. 

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Forget "no pain, no gain"

In my classes, I started to talk about how our bodies felt when we exercised. I would give examples of what it should look, feel, and sound like when we were exercising within responsible limits and I’d stress how important it was to know the difference between testing those boundaries and rejecting them completely. Most people who want to exercise know that it’s human to want to avoid discomfort and there is always a risk that we won’t reach our full potential during a workout because of that, but the opposite risk is just as serious.

I'd argue the value of the old "no pain, no gain" ethos, pointing out that discomfort can be an acceptable part of a workout that responsibly pushes your boundaries, but outright pain usually means that you're either injuring yourself or on the verge of doing so. 

If we were working in the aerobic zone, I'd point out that we should still be able to talk with some amount of comfort. Being completely out of breath, I'd stress, was only for very short periods of high-intensity interval training like sprints. I was also very anti-vomit. It might make you feel tough to push yourself to those limits, but puke is your body's particularly unpleasant way of telling you that something is going very wrong in your workout.  “You want to push yourself, but you don’t want to kill yourself” I’d tell my students. 

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Respecting my limits

It took me years to listen to my own advice, both at the gym and in the rest of my life. I started getting sick more often. Then I started having panic attacks, which would often hit right before I had to leave home to teach a fitness class. It wasn't until I had a meltdown and was finally diagnosed with autism in my late 20s that I started to think it was time to be a little more gentle with myself. 

I’ve made a lot of changes since then—and none of them came easily. Each workout I skipped, each class I stopped teaching, felt like a fatal character flaw. Maybe if I could just be a little better, I’d think, I’d be able to push through. Once I worked through the guilt, though, I was able to step back and start to reassess my life. I started to think of myself as a human being with a unique set of issues and skills that needed to be accepted as a whole. After a while, learning to work within my limits no longer felt like failure. It felt like relief. 

Two years ago, during another rough patch, I took a solid look at my career in fitness and decided that it wasn't working for me anymore. I quit teaching fitness, and I also took a break from my own workouts.

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When I finally started exercising again, I found that I no longer had the desire to push myself as hard as I once had. Sometimes I miss feeling like a cartoon superhero the way I used to when I was crushing reps, but there’s also something really exciting about getting to know your body well enough to be able to actually feel when it’s had enough.

Thanks to the years that I've spent looking for the signs of other people's limits, I'm starting to get a little better at spotting those symptoms in myself. I know what the difference is between feeling my breathing start to elevate and starting to feel a pain in my chest when I'm running. I know when my muscles are burning because I'm challenging them and when they're starting to twinge because I'm misusing or abusing them. I know that feeling a click in my left elbow during certain strength exercises means that I need to alter my range of motion, because no good has ever come from ignoring a malfunctioning tendon.

I no longer do push-ups to the point of face-plants. Now I do them until I can no longer maintain good form. It might not be as “tough” as what I used to do, but it’s smart training—and it’s sustainable. If I'd started doing this a decade ago, I probably wouldn't have had to learn this lesson the hard way at all. If I keep it up, I won’t have to learn it again.