Hurting when you exercise? Something could be uneven (and it's probably not what you think)
Pushing through the pain? Stop. Now.
"Pain is a medical condition and a medical issue," says Brett Jones, owner of Applied Strength in Pittsburgh who is certified for the Functional Movement Screen, a system of tests and corrective exercise strategies. "It's a warning sign. The pain is there to tell you something's wrong."
And that warning sign could be more serious than "you're going too hard." Jones and the other coaches consulted for this piece all had a horror story to tell—when pain in a client meant a more serious condition such as a nerve issue, thyroid issue, or even cancer. The point: If you experience regular pain while exercising—or when you're not—go to the doctor.
If you've been cleared by a doc and you're still feeling discomfort, try these simple tests to see what’s truly causing the pain—it could be related to an imbalance in a completely different part of your body. The good news: With these drills, stretches, and corrective exercises, you may be able to fix them—no doctors necessary.
Neck pain and headaches? Could be your shoulders.
If you're experiencing these symptoms and have been cleared by a doctor, check out the height of your shoulders, says Aaron Brooks, a biomechanics expert and owner of Perfect Postures in Auburndale, MA.
“Look in the mirror and see if one shoulder is higher or lower than the other,” he says. If one of your shoulders is higher than the other, you’ll be strengthening one more than the other, and it may wind up pulled forward more than the other—resulting an inward rotation of that hand. “When you do a row or a press, that side’s going to get pinched. There’s less room in the shoulder. You can wind up with bursitis or tendonitis.” Or headaches and neck pain.
Fix it: If the mirror test shows they're uneven, try this single-arm doorway stretch, Brooks says. To do it, stand inside the threshold of a door, and place your right forearm inside the door on the right side of the jamb, palm against the jamb at about shoulder height. In this position, twist your chest slightly through the door to stretch your chest—alternately, you can take a step forward with your right foot, keeping your left foot in the threshold. This stretch will open your chest muscles and create room in your shoulder for movement.
Pair that stretch with this mid-back strengthening exercise: Grab a resistance band and stretch it in front of your chest so that your arms are straight out to the sides from your shoulders, palms facing up. At the full extension of your arms, the band should be stretched out. Return to clap your hands in front, and repeat the movement. Pair these two moves—in this order—three times per week.
Shoulders even? Your headaches could be from a forward-leaning head.
If you don't see an imbalance in the height of your shoulders, turn to the side, says Robert Taylor, owner of Smarter Team Training in Baltimore. If your head is jutting far forward of your shoulders, it could ultimately decrease the amount of blood flow to your head and neck.
"The head leans forward, the spine leans forward, and it puts unnecessary stress on the lower spine too," he says. With the decreased blood flow to your thinking cap, you could get headaches.
Fix it: Increase blood flow up top and return your head to its natural, up-tall position by strength training your neck, Taylor says. Try this one-arm shrug to even things out:
Sit on an upright bench, like one you'd use for a shoulder press. Holding a dumbbell in your right hand, place your left hand under your left butt cheek and grab the side of the seat. Let your right hand hang down straight by your side and pull your shoulder blades back and together. Now raise your right shoulder up towards your ear—raise it straight up instead of rolling your shoulder. Hold for a beat at the top, and then return to the start position. Complete a set of 10, and repeat on the other side.
Knee pain when you run? Could be your hips.
"The knee has two bad neighbors—the hip and the ankle," Jones says. The pain you feel in your knee could very well be tightness or immobility in those bad neighbors. "They sweep all their leaves into the knee's yard. Everyone blames the knee, but it's the neighbors."
To see if your hips have a proper level of mobility, lay on your back in a doorway so that the middle of your kneecap is right on the threshold. Relax your arms at your sides, palms up. Bring your feet together, toes pointed at the ceiling. Pull your toes towards your shins to create a 90-degree angle at the ankle. Keep one leg straight and still as you slowly raise the other leg until either your knee bends on your raising leg, or your bottom foot bends or turns out to the side.
"See if the knobby part of your ankle can make it past the door frame," Jones says. If it does, your hips are plenty mobile—check the ankle test below to see if that's causing some knee issues. If either ankle can't make it, foam roll your hips and glutes, and then work on this stretch using a belt or strap for instant improvement.
Fix it: Lying in the same position as during the test, wrap a strap or belt around one foot and raise it until you just start to feel a stretch—not to the level where it's all the stretch you can take, but just the beginning of the stretch, Jones says. Once here, bring your other leg up to meet it. Return the non-strapped leg to the floor. At this point, you may find that the strapped leg can come up a little higher. When it does, bring the non-strapped leg up to meet it again. Continue until you no longer feel progress in the strapped leg, and switch.
Hips moving OK? Check your ankles.
If your hips are mobile (and even if they're not), ankle mobility can also lead to knee pain, says Mike Perry, owner of Skill of Strength in North Chelmsford, Mass., who is certified in the Functional Movement Screen. To see how mobile your ankles are (or aren't), assume a one-knee position facing a wall. Your knees should both form 90-degree angles, and the toe of your planted foot should be about four inches from the wall. In this position, Perry says, try to glide your knee over the pinky toe to touch the wall without lifting your heel. If you can reach the wall, your ankle is gliding correctly. If your foot comes up before your knee touches the wall, your calves are "incredibly tight," Perry says.
Fix it: To help remedy this issue, foam roll your calves and try this variation on that ankle test from Brett Jones. Assume the same half-kneeling position, and place the point of a broomstick on the pinky toe of your planted foot. Hold the stick so it's touching the outside of your knee. With the stick in this position, keeping your knee from flaring out to the side, glide the knee forward slowly, stopping when your heel leaves the ground. If you perform this as a drill, Jones says, you can see as much as half an inch of improvement in the first session. If you feel pain during the drill, stop and consult a physician.
Lower-back tightness? Might be your hips.
As with knee pain, back discomfort often isn't a back problem at all, Brooks says. If one side of your pelvis is higher than the other, it can result in back pain, hip pain, groin pain, or even knee pain.
"If you try to do a lunge, the knee on the high side will cave in and the hip will angle inward,” Brooks says. The repercussions of this change over time can be knee pain, a patella tear, a medial meniscus injury, or hip bursitis.
But back to your back—the unevenness of your hips can pull on your lower back, causing that tightness while sitting all day.
Fix it: If you notice your hips are uneven, try this hip abduction exercise. Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart (the classic sit-up position). Wrap a small resistance band around your knees so that it’s already a little tight while your knees are together. Now press out against the strap to separate your knees until they form a V-shape, holding at the outermost edge of the press for a few moments. This move helps to fix the hip imbalance because “in the lying position, the muscles that are causing the pelvis to be out of alignment are shut off,” Brooks says. Repeat for 2 sets of 20 reps, 3 times per week.