Can Better Body Awareness Improve Your Workout?

Research explains how feeling the burn can ruin your workout.

Posted Dec 03, 2017

In our meeting, my publisher confesses that she is dreaming of taking a hot bath: Her body is in serious pain after her CrossFit workout the day before. Wow, I wonder quietly, is it good to exercise this hard, particularly as my publisher’s work does not require an extremely high level of fitness? After the meeting, I leave to go teach my Pilates class. At the end of the class, my participants suggest that they needed "harder" exercises as they did not feel their muscles "burn." "The burn," as I remember, was the buzzword in Jane Fonda’s workouts in the late 1980s that were criticized as leading to injuries. Why do my participants still long to feel the burn? Why did my publisher have to work her body into such pain? Is it possible to have a good workout without an accompanying body ache?

The burn, as we commonly employ it in our exercise parlance, refers to a burning sensation in the muscles. It is a sign of fatigue: The muscle’s ability to produce work has decreased. As such, the burn should be an obvious sign that it is time to stop, because continuing to work can lead to muscle tissue damage. Exercise scientists further explain how pushing beyond fatigue can cause muscle damage.

It is common to experience some muscle soreness after working out. Such pain, however, can be a sign of exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD). Exercise science details the mechanism for EIMD as follows: Muscle fibers are able to contract (to work) due to their structure of sarcomeres — the functional units of the muscle — that are further composed of filaments. The filaments slide to contract the muscle fibers, and then slide back to release the contraction. EIMD is a result of mechanical strain that over-stretches the sarcomeres beyond the filaments’ gliding range (Peake & al, 2017). This is more likely to happen during eccentric muscle work, when the muscle works while lengthening (think of, for example, the lowering phase of a biceps curl). Peake and his colleagues (2017) note that the muscle damage is greater and recovery slower when exercise is performed in the following ways:

  • With increasing numbers of eccentric muscle contractions at a long muscle length
  • Using a single joint
  • Using the arms rather than the legs

Such damage directly reduces a muscle’s ability to work and creates inflammation and muscle swelling. It also causes delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which is at its peak one to three days after the exercise bout.

Due to the damage, the muscles need time to recover. In their review, Peake and his colleagues (2017) suggest that mild EIMD (a decrease in muscle function of less than 20 percent) requires two days for full recovery, but even moderate EIMD (a reduction in muscle function of more than 20 percent) requires seven days for full recovery. While EIMD results in inflammation — physiological, cellular, and molecular changes within injured muscle tissue — associated with damage, pain, and delayed recovery, inflammation is also a key process underlying muscular repair and regeneration. Peake and his colleagues (2017) explain that this is the "repeated bout effect": After an initial bout of muscle-damaging exercise, a muscle adapts, and the damage is less severe and recovery faster after subsequent bouts of exercise. However, they emphasize that only low-intensity eccentric muscle contractions “that do not cause (or only induce minor) symptoms of exercise-induced muscle damage” (p. 561) have the protective effect on the muscle.

If we want to avoid EIMS, which some scientists consider to be the most common exercise injury, how do we know when a workout has been effective? Pain is always a sign that something is wrong and, thus, should not be the indicator of a beneficial exercise routine. What other ways are there to know how to stop exercising before muscle damage?

One way is to learn to become more aware of one’s body. Good body awareness is difficult to measure scientifically, but can teach us how to recognize a strenuous workout that, instead of leading to pain and injury, improves performance, muscle balance, and everyday functionality.

A good exercise program is designed to improve physical fitness, muscle balance, and the body’s mechanical efficiency. However, if we can assess its effects only based on the amount of pain it produces, we are unable to maximize its benefits. On the other hand, we often enter into an exercise program with existing stress damage from daily living. Even a balanced exercise program can exacerbate that damage, if the only bodily feeling we can recognize is excruciating pain. It is not necessary to engage in a cycle of pain, EIMS, and recovery to benefit from exercise. To exercise more efficiently and avoid or recover from pain, we have to learn to take more careful note of how the body feels.

This means that we have to become more mindful of what we are doing when exercising. This requires an attitude adjustment from the "no pain, no gain" dictum to appreciating more carefully designed exercise benefits. It requires a further change of attitude from external rewards after exercise to appreciating moving itself. Many exercisers do not actually enjoy working out, but persist, because as a result, they look good and feel good (Markula, 1995). It is common, thus, to use music, for example, to take one’s mind off exercise while on an exercise bike or treadmill. To be attuned to one’s body, however, requires that we actually think about what we are doing during exercise. This might mean taking off the headphones or turning off the TV to focus on one’s body sensations instead. However, if pain is the only bodily sensation we recognize, tuning into mindfulness is a novel and complex challenge. There are, however, a number of bodily messages, besides pain, that our brain registers on a regular basis.

The brain receives constant messages from the body. The sensory receptors called proprioceptors, which are located with the muscles and tendons, provide information to the brain about the location of specific body parts in space, as well as muscle tension and length. The brain then registers this sensory input. We often have become so used to this information that we ignore it — until it becomes unbearable pain. As the brain actually directs muscle function — and, thus, body positions — the popular term "muscle memory" is incorrect: Muscles do not remember or have memory to store movement patterns; it is the brain that registers movement sensations.

Proprioceptors are sensory receptors for our kinesthetic sense, the sense of bodily movement, in a similar fashion that our eyes are receptors for vision. While vision is important when moving (we obtain about 70 percent of movement information through vision), individuals with good kinesthetic sense are typically good movers who know how to perform in an efficient manner.

Body awareness is the subjective aspect of proprioception (Mehling & al., 2011). Mehling and his colleagues explain that “body awareness involves an attentional focus on and awareness of internal body sensations” (p. 1), which then enters conscious awareness. Body awareness incorporates such mental processes as “attention, interpretation, appraisal, beliefs, memories, conditioning, attitudes and affect” (p. 1). Body awareness, thus, involves both the body and the mind. That is, it involves both psychological and physiological sensations. Phenomenological researchers often call the simultaneous experience of "having a body and being in a body" embodiment. Through an embodied sensation, an individual integrates the body, mind, emotions, and personality to acquire the benefits of holistic exercise.

It is not difficult to see that body awareness is necessary for an efficient mover. Dancers for example, often define good body awareness as an essential quality for mastering the intricate skills of an expressive performance (Markula, 2015). This does not mean, however, that dancers are pain free. In her ethnographic study, Aalten (2007), for example, was bewildered by the harsh ways that professional ballet dancers treated their bodies. They, Aalten concluded, had become disembodied when driven to achieve the ideal looks of the thin, hyper-flexible ballerina by dieting and excessive training. Dancers’ attitudes toward pain also revealed that they often ignored their bodily sensations. They believed that to be a good dancer, one has to suffer: Pain was a sign that one worked hard and improved oneself physically. Due to these factors, the ballet dancers systematically silenced their bodies, which disappeared from their awareness. If this happens to professional dancers, no wonder we become unaware of how we abuse our bodies to be "good exercisers," who work themselves up to the burn and suffer from DOMS.

Body awareness, aka the sensitivity to one’s body’s internal sensations, is at the core of many body-mind therapies or movement forms, such as yoga, Feldenkreis, Alexander, Tai Chi, and Pilates. While we can practice body awareness in these types of classes, why not have it inform all of our exercise practices — or even our everyday movement experiences. This means paying more attention to how we perform exercises. To do this, we can add a few small pointers to our workouts:

  • Perform each exercise at a slower pace to carefully observe each part of the exercise. This strategy helps to employ both the concentric phase — muscle contracts while working — and eccentric phase — muscle lengthens while working — of each exercise.
  • Perform each exercise with less intensity. Carey (2005) recommends 50 to 60 percent of our maximum for an optimal intensity. This helps to avoid damage to muscle tissue.
  • Perform multi-joint exercises that use both arms and legs. This helps to avoid overloading one muscle and trains body awareness.
  • Observe carefully where you feel the exercise to further train body awareness and avoid muscle tissue damage.

If group exercise classes are your way to exercise, look for classes where the instructor:

  • Pays attention to where the exercisers feel the movements
  • Gives advice on how to perform each exercise correctly
  • Explains the function for the exercises
  • Provides modifications for intensity and timing
  • Includes exercises for muscles other than "the mirror-muscles" (e.g., abs, butts, and legs)

Exercising body awareness can make workouts more enjoyable: Instead of wishing it were all over as quickly as possible, we can learn to enjoy the various ways the body can become stronger and more mobile. This type of exercise attitude can also appeal to beginner exercisers, who do not need to go "flat out" only to feel frustrated and inadequate after an exercise bout. Instead of recovering from EIMS, we can exercise more frequently, but more efficiently.

Acquiring body awareness, nevertheless, is a learning process that can take significant time. Like all learning, it requires patience, but the reward is a significantly enhanced exercise experience, a more efficient workout, and improved, pain-free everyday life.


Aalten, A. (2007). Listening to the dancer’s body. Sociological Review, 109-125.

Markula, P. (1995). Firm but shapely, fit but sexy, strong but thin: The postmodern aerobicizing female bodies. Sociology of Sport Journal, 12, 424-453.

Carey, A. (2005). The pain free program: A proven method to relieve back, neck, shoulder and joint pain. John Wiley and Sons.

Markula, P. (2015). (Im)mobile bodies: Contemporary semi-professional dancers’ experiences with injuries. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 50, 840-864.

Mehling, W. E., Wrubel, J., Daubenmier, J. J., Price, C. J., Kerr, C. E., Silow, T., Gopisetty, V., & Stewart, A. L. (2011). Body awareness: A phenomenological inquiry into the common ground of mind-body therapies. Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine, 6(6), 1-12.

Peake, J. M., Neubauer, O., Della Gatta, P. A., & Nosaka, K. (2017). Muscle damage and inflammation during recovery from exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology, 122, 559-570.

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