Should I feel the “Burn” during exercise?

You might have heard the phrase “Feel the Burn” with many people suggesting that if you don’t feel the burn while you are working out, then you are not working hard enough.  However, this burn isn’t always a reliable indicator that you are working hard or effectively and does not necessarily mean that you are burning lots or calories or tightening the muscles that are burning.  So, first let’s understand what the burn is all about.


What is the burn?

The burn you may feel when exercising is basically your muscles responding to workload when they are fatiguing, especially when lifting weights. So, when you lift a weight, your muscles contract, and energy is used. When the energy stores are nearly depleted, new energy must be created to fuel the muscles so that they can keep going. But, the body doesn’t have enough time to provide oxygen to the necessary tissue to create this energy, so it starts breaking down glucose, creating lactate.  This process creates a buildup of lactate which increases the acidity in the muscles.  This acid buildup, or lactic acid results in the burning sensation.


Is feeling the burn necessary to improve your fitness?

“Feeling the burn” isn’t necessary to improving physical fitness.  It all depends on your fitness goals.

So, if your goal is to improve your strength, then feeling the burn can be a problem – a workout geared around strength shouldn’t have sets that last long enough to feel the burn, as your body would struggle to recover and continue working out.

If your goal is fat loss, then feeling the burn is also not going to be a good gauge of melting away that fat.  What’s important for fat loss is the higher you get your heart rate up, the more calories you will burn. So it’s the intensity and duration of the workout that will determine how many calories and therefore how much fat you are burning, not whether  you feel the burn.

However, if your goal is muscle growth, then feeling the burn can be useful.  This is because as mentioned earlier muscle burn is a sign of fatigue and muscle damage, which needs to happen if you want to increase muscle growth.  As muscles tear during exercise, they repair themselves using protein (which is why protein is so important in your diet), and as they repair themselves, they increase in size.  So the best way to see muscular growth is by challenging and fatiguing your muscles and feeling the burn by increasing your weights as your muscles adapt.


So how do I know whether I am working hard enough?

So, you might like to use the burn to help you figure out how hard you’re working, but a better way is the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Scale.  With the RPE scale, you grade your effort and intensity during a session from 1-10, with 1 being very light to 10 being very very heavy exertion or max effort.  You should be aiming for an intensity goal that you can sustain, which will be different for everyone.  The scale isn’t perfect, but it provides better guidance for helping you modulate your workout intensity based on how you feel, rather than simply running yourself into the ground every time, striving for that burn.


When to back off

Focusing too much on feeling the burn can actually be dangerous.  Firstly, you might feel the burn, but injury is imminent if you are not exercising properly with correct form. So you should always stop exercising if you experience a stabbing, shooting or searing pain, which is the body’s way of telling you something is wrong. You should also stop if you feel dizzy or lightheaded and always warm up beforehand to prevent injury.

Finally, if you are always striving for the burning feeling, you might end up getting really sore each and every workout, which might end up discouraging you from wanting to continue working out if you feel sore and miserable most of the time.  You might also deplete your energy stores too much where you cant put in maximum effort to get the most from your workout.

Instead, you should aim to exercise consistently and create healthy habits that will make long-term changes to your body and mind, and most importantly,  you should enjoy the benefits of exercising without constant muscle burn and soreness!  That’s not to say you wont feel these at times but they shouldn’t be “the be all and end all” to help you achieve your fitness goals.