In my 15+ years spent working with people’s bodies, I have yet to see a single person willingly slow down during the “transition phase” of an exercise. The body’s tendency is to rush through it, but this is unquestionably the most important part of every exercise movement. The transition phase is where we experience the greatest challenge and reap the most benefit.
So, what is the transition phase and what can it teach us about how to optimize our workouts? Better yet, what can it teach us about living a life of wellness?
What’s the Transition Phase? Why is it Important?
Simply put, the transition phase is the hardest part of any given exercise movement when the muscle(s) goes from a shortening action to a lengthening one, or vice versa. In weightlifting terminology these actions are called concentric (shortening/contracting) and eccentric (lengthening/elongating). Every single active exercise involves muscular transition phases including running, walking, lifting, dancing, team sports, and more. Static exercises that involve holding a posture or position are the only ones that don’t (ex: a plank hold or staying in down dog) .
Transition phases typically happen at the top or bottom of an exercise movement. For example, the bottom of a squat is a transition phase and the top of a shoulder press is a transition phase. Both of these examples are when the direction of the movement is changing and the muscles have to work harder, especially when lengthening and becoming less stable. This is when many people begin to feel fatigued and rush through the movement. For example, a person a doing squats will pop back up to standing as quickly as they can or will avoid going as low as earlier reps. A person doing the shoulder press might also rush, limit range of motion by not fully extending in the elbows, or forget to breathe.
As long as a person isn’t risking injury, it’s best to slow down during the transition phase instead of hurry up. While this leads to greater discomfort in the short term, it yields far greater returns in strength, stamina, and flexibility.
Not all reps are made equal.
People can rush through the transition phase for 12 reps of a shoulder press and have so-so gains in strength or they can take their time and work with their breath to slowly move through those same 12 reps and yield far greater muscle breakdown from the workout. As you probably already know, muscle breakdown is what leads to soreness. Recovering from soreness is part of the necessary equation for muscle and strength gains.
Slow Transition Phase = More Muscle Breakdown = Sore Muscles =
We humans have a fondness for physical comfort but ironically, that’s not what propels us forward the most.
Approach the Transition Phase with Wisdom
I’m not one to preach “go hard or go home” about anything, especially fitness. I used to be gung-ho about working out and putting myself through the gauntlet but that’s no longer my approach. I’ve matured over time and now see how harmful that mentality can be – for my own health and for my clients’ well-being. Pushing hard even when our bodies scream to stop or slow down is a really good way to risk injury.
With this in mind, it’s crucial that we approach the transition phase of each exercise rep with wisdom. Listening to our bodies is crucial to avoid injury and burnout. There are times when working hard helps us grow and other times when it can have quite the opposite effect. If we’re sick, run down physically, emotionally depleted, overcome with stress, or under-rested then we serve our bodies best by choosing to recover. At the very least we must learn to balance our strenuous exercises with meditation, stretching, and relaxation to calm our nervous systems.
In summary: You must be judicious about how much and when you push hard through each movement. Never ignore warning signs from your body such as dizziness, sharp pain, joint discomfort, lightheadedness, nausea, the sensation that you might drop the weight at any moment, etc. It’s important that you know when to stop.
Life Lessons from the Transition Phase
Change takes time
We’ve all heard the old adage “change takes time” and that’s true with more than exercise. Certain things take time even when we would prefer them not to – like pregnancy, education, wine making, you name it. The real life examples are endless and there are tangible consequences for shortchanging seasons of transition and growth.
I used to be the kind of person who wanted to get everything done in a hurry. When I had my first child a full month early for no clear reason I wondered how much of my innate desire to control and rush through life had harmed things. Although my son turned out to be healthy, the experience compelled me to approach my following four pregnancies quite differently. I allowed myself a lot more rest and took things slower than I might have otherwise done. The need to be patient and calm as my body changed was crucial during the major physical and emotional transitions of each pregnancy.
Breathe through stress
Learning to breathe is crucial during the transition phase in exercise. Inhaling gives us the necessary oxygen for exercise and exhaling gives us a burst of force (and a tighter core) to get through the hard part of a rep. The same goes for life. We must learn to breathe deeply for optimal health and nervous system regulation. Shallow breathing results in staying in a fight-or-flight mode with high stress hormones that wreak havoc on our health. Breathwork can help us physically and emotionally regulate our bodies during overwhelming transitions like moving homes, starting a new job, preparing to get married, trying to conceive, etc.
Spiritual Transition Phases
Transition phases can happen physically, emotionally and spiritually. The world is more interconnected digitally than ever before and this exposure to new ways of thinking and living has the potential to change people’s worldview and beliefs. I personally believe we are collectively moving away from religious exclusivism and elitism but that this slow-moving evolution (i.e. transition phase) comes with growth pains and pushback, especially from fundamentalist groups. I will be curious to see if humanity can find new and healing ways to come together spiritually. If we can, I believe the health of both humanity and the earth will improve. Women’s individual and collective wellness will benefit too.
Wellness is Defined by the Transitions
Wellness will always be inclusive of the things in life that push us through discomfort and challenge us to grow. Wellness is more of a holistic approach to living than it is a static state of unchanging good health.
The next time we find ourselves in a “transition phase,” be it mid-workout or mid-workday, I hope we can slow down, lean into the discomfort, breathe deeply, stay patient, and grow.
Yours in health and wellness,