The Problem With the Fitness Cue “Listen to Your Body”

Fitness

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If you’ve ever stepped foot in a group fitness class, you’ve probably heard the cue “Listen to your body.” Like many clichés, this teacher-favorite phrase holds a kernel of truth but doesn’t tell the whole complex story of what it means to know how to move your body in a given moment.

On the surface, “listen to your body” has a nice ring to it; it’s an invitation to leave the outside world behind and offer yourself just what you need right now.

And the cue can be helpful. Instructors may first offer a class multiple ways of approaching a pose and explain what the variations of the pose may feel like when done with proper form. On that backdrop, an invitation to tune in and “listen to your body” can help you find the best fit for you — assuming the instructor is also keeping an eye on the students for real-time form corrections.

The problem? This workout advice sometimes takes the place of education and variation in fitness classes, according to Lara Heimann, a physical therapist and the founder of the LYT Method.

When the cue to “listen to your body” is used without the variations and education portion, students are left with, essentially, no guidance at all. And while this omission may be OK for intermediate or advanced fitness lovers, beginners may find themselves unsure, even unsupported, when it comes time to put this cliché into action.

Why Fitness Variations Are So Important

Human beings are about 99.9 percent genetically identical. In fitness, accounting for that 0.1 percent can be the difference between injury and fitness gains.

Modifications or variations help bridge the gaps between different physiologies so everyone can experience similar stimuli and reach their fitness goals. “The purpose [of modifications] is to make movement practices accessible for everybody,” says Natalia Tabilo, founder of the online platform Yoga For All Bodies.

Teachers who offer variations acknowledge that there is no single “right” way to perform a movement, according to Heimann. “Sometimes when people talk about alignment, especially in yoga, they go into very black-and-white thinking, but there’s no black and white,” Heimann explains. “There are places that are more optimal, and there are places that are less optimal. It all happens on a spectrum.”

For example, there are many ways to perform a forward fold on your yoga mat. Beginner yogis may opt to bend their knees deeply and place their hands on a chair for support; advanced yogis may touch their face to their shins — and there are plenty of options in between, for people at varying fitness levels, of different sizes, or with different disabilities. Tabilo points out that those living in larger bodies may choose to stand with their feet wide apart to leave room for their bellies in this pose, for instance.

When teachers brush over variations and offer only one way to perform a movement, they leave people out. Specifically, over-relying on the fitness cue “Listen to your body” instead of offering variations tailored to the people who are in their class and explaining what the variations might feel like can have detrimental effects on students both mentally and physically, Tabilo says.

“What I commonly see is that trainers and teachers want to put the person in the shape instead of adapting the shape to the person. That makes the students think that there’s something wrong with them because they can’t do what the teacher is saying or what their classmates are doing,” she says. And, of course, lack of modifications can even result in injury if clients perform exercises incorrectly or commit to a load that is beyond their current fitness level.

Why Trainers Over-Rely on the Cue “Listen to Your Body”

Teaching group fitness is a tough gig. Instructors are tasked with creating a workout and piloting groups with varying abilities from warmup to cooldown.

Maureen Key, the senior manager of performance design at sports performance company Exos, explains that many fitness chains simplify this process by offering classes that provide a single offering to large groups of diverse bodies. An indoor cycling chain will offer a nearly identical class in Los Angeles and Orlando, for instance.

While this big-box model creates community and allows you the comfort of knowing exactly what you’re getting from a class, it may limit the instructor’s ability to teach every student. And Key says it’s particularly challenging to cater to everyone in large classes. “If I’m leading a larger group of people, I have to think about which movements make sense for that many people. If there aren’t that many coaches helping me, I’m thinking about which exercises people can perform safely without as much monitoring,” she says. Not every instructor has the luxury of “reading the room.”

What’s more, some fitness chains may employ instructors who don’t consistently continue their fitness education as performance science evolves. “Some of these turnkey chain fitness spots are doing a lot of centralized programming. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but not all of them are providing the same investment in their instructors,” Key says.

All of these factors may contribute to that blanket fitness advice, “listen to your body,” being used on repeat — regardless of the many, varied bodies in the room.

Other Warning Signs to Watch For

“Listen to your body” isn’t the only sign of an instructor who shies away from offering the type of personalized attention that makes group fitness classes safe and effective. Key, who trains instructors for Exos, says there are three giveaways that indicate your fitness instructor may not be offering bespoke guidance for each class.

First, if you’re new, do they acknowledge you when you walk into the class? “They should at least talk to you a little bit about your background,” Key says. For example: Are you injured? Have you ever tried weight lifting/yoga/cycling before?

Second, notice if the instructor is warming you up or cooling you down. These steps are key for injury prevention and priming you for the work ahead. If they’re not, consider adding your own warmup and cooldown.

Finally (and you know this one!), fitness instructors should offer at least a few variations for every move. If they offer just one (and, yes, if they say something like “listen to your body”), know that you may have to do some extra legwork to make sure you’re getting what you need from the class.

How to Actually “Listen to Your Body” in Fitness Classes

As a student, you can’t possibly control the instruction of every class, but you can alter how you show up and what you expect from the classes you pay to attend. If you’re attending a class that offers minimal fitness cues, here are four ways to make sure you’re looking after number one.

1. Reflect On Why You’re Seeking Group Fitness

If you’re considering joining a group fitness class or reevaluating your current schedule, Heimann recommends reflecting on what you want from the experience. “We want to have a bar for ourselves. Let’s say you love attending a class because you need the community, like to sweat, and want to feel good at the end of it. You know you’re not getting a lot of instruction, and that’s OK. That’s where your bar is, and your needs are getting met,” says Heimann.

For others, the bar may be in a different place. You may love to geek out about the whats, whys, and hows of strength training, and thus, you want to frequent a business that emphasizes form and teaching. Knowing what you want beforehand can help you step into class with your intentions — and stick with them.

To be clear, even if you fall in the “I’m just here for the vibes” group, you should still take steps to protect your body and read steps two through four. The vibes will definitely be shattered if you wind up hurting yourself.

2. Conduct Your Own Research

We all deserve amazing instructors who offer supportive, nonjudgmental, personalized attention. But that’s not always what happens. And when we’re taking a class where alignment isn’t a main focus — either unexpectedly or intentionally — having some baseline knowledge about what moves you can do safely and effectively can be invaluable.

The rise of online fitness has made it simple to access high-caliber teachers online, so seek accredited instructors out and learn from them. That way, when you’re in a class with minimal instruction, you’ll know how to tune in and stay safe.

For example, if you’re planning to attend a strength-training class, make a point of looking up how to do the most basic moves — like squats, deadlifts, and lunges — with proper form. With this knowledge on your side, you’ll be able to default to these moves in class if you start to feel lost. You can even look up reviews of the fitness spot beforehand to see how much studying you really need to do.

3. Consider Raising Your Concerns With Your Instructor

Tabilo recommends having an open dialogue with your instructors, and sometimes that involves letting them know that a certain move didn’t work for your anatomy. Alternatively, you may opt to speak to the instructor beforehand to express your concerns and ask for tips.

“If you live in a larger body and you know that cue is not working, absolutely tell your teacher in a respectful way after class,” says Tabilo, who practices what she preaches. “It’s something I do when I go to classes.”

Key adds that, generally speaking, good fitness instructors are always open to feedback. So if you kindly ask your teacher for help and they don’t respond well, that may be a sign that it’s time to try a different class.

4. Learn to Recognize Your Body’s Red Flags

Speaking of red flags, getting to know your body’s warning signals could help you stay injury-free, because you’ll know when to back off during an exercise, even in the absence of instructor attention.

But Key says that fitness beginners may need help distinguishing between soreness and injury. “Some self-investigation is really important,” she says. If you’re trying a new exercise, move into it slowly to see how your body reacts. If you feel discomfort, pause and ask yourself, “What hurts and why is it in pain?” Key suggests.

When a muscle is sore, you may notice that a particular movement pattern, like standing up, causes muscular discomfort. Meanwhile, sharp, acute pain may be a sign that you’ve sustained an injury. “If you experience a sudden sharp pain that feels abnormal when you’re exercising or hear a pop, odds are you’ve endured a severe injury,” Rachel Straub, PhD, a coauthor of “Weight Training Without Injury,” previously told POPSUGAR.

The bottom line is you don’t need to ditch your favorite group fitness class just because your instructor over-relies on “listen to your body.” Maybe you love the people you see at your Saturday-morning yoga class or just can’t get enough of the vibe at your local cycling studio. Just know where your bar is, why you keep showing up, and how you can continue educating yourself on your own anatomy.

In other words, listen to your body — but acknowledge when you may need a little help interpreting what you’re hearing, too.

Kells McPhillips is a health and wellness writer living in Los Angeles. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Well+Good, Fortune, Runner’s World, Outside, Yoga Journal, and others. On the brand side, she regularly works with Peloton, Calm, and Equinox. She is also the author of the Substack Life Lives.

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