What ‘Listen to Your Body’ Really Means

What ‘Listen to Your Body’ Really Means
Photo: Flamingo Images, Shutterstock

In the fitness world, people often say you should “listen to your body” when deciding what to do if you aren’t feeling great. That advice often amounts to permission to take the day off, which is certainly a valid option in many cases.

But “listen to your body” doesn’t mean “take the day off if you’re not feeling 100%.” That suggests a relationship where our brain is pushing us to go go go, while our body is like a stubborn donkey — sometimes complying, sometimes sitting down and refusing to budge.

Our bodies are strong and wonderful and resilient, and if you actually listen to your body, you may find that you’re capable of more than you think. Sure, your body can tell you when to take time off, but your body can also tell you when it’s up for a challenge.

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Anyone who’s been exercising for long enough will have a story like this: I felt kind of crappy, but I showed up for my workout anyway. Once I got going I actually felt pretty good, and I ended up setting a personal record. Seriously, if you don’t recognise yourself here, ask around. It’s happened to me multiple times, and it will happen to you too someday if you give yourself the opportunity.

Here’s how I approach days I’m feeling sore, tired, or slightly under the weather:

  1. If I have a workout scheduled, I show up no matter what.
  2. I don’t let my brain guess how my body will feel; I wait for my body to tell me.

So let’s say it’s squat day, but I made some poor life choices. Maybe I did something yesterday that worked my quads more than I expected, and then I didn’t get enough sleep. I’m tired, sluggish, and my legs hurt when I go down the stairs.

But I still show up. I know that I’ve had plenty of good workouts on what I thought would be bad days, and if I don’t squat today that will mess up my schedule for the rest of the week. (If I have flexibility in my week to swap a hard day with an easy day, I might do that, but I’m not going to straight up skip a workout.)

Then what? I start warming up. I pick up the empty bar and do a few squats with it. I ask myself how I feel. So far so good? If so, I proceed.

Now, I might be thinking the whole time “Ugh, I probably won’t do anywhere near the numbers I was planning for today.” But I know that if I reach a weight that I truly cannot do, I’ll back off. So I keep going.

I load some more weight on the bar, and ask my body: how does this feel? If it’s fine, I add more. How about this?

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You see where this is going. As long as I can do each set safely and without any significant pain, I proceed. I don’t ask myself if I’d like to stop, I ask myself if this is a point where I must stop. More often than not, my body keeps saying “yep, this is ok.”

Soreness has a way of subsiding once you’re warmed up and doing work, so I’m not surprised if I’m able to do my full workout as programmed. (If your workouts are programmed with RPE, your job is even easier, since those automatically scale according to how you’re feeling.)

But sometimes you do need a bit less than programmed. Maybe I’m supposed to work up to sets at 80% of my max, but when I get to 75% I can tell that’s all I have in me. That’s fine; I have truly listened to my body and it’s told me what it can do today. In other words, believe in your own strength and resilience. When you listen to your body, make sure you’re asking it what it can do, not just what it can’t.

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