13 Practical Tips to Find Your Movement Sweet Spot
Struggling to find the right amount and intensity for your exercise routine? These practical tips from physical therapists will help you find your movement sweet spot.
“I’d love to start a more active exercise routine, but won’t it make my pain worse?”
“When my back’s acting up, how can I tell if exercise or rest will help ease the pain?”
“When you feel pain, it means you’re damaging your body and you should stop, right?”
Hinge Health members pose some form of these questions to our physical therapists every single day. And with good reason: What they’re getting at has to do a concept called fear avoidance, or the avoidance of movements or activities due to fear of increased pain or re-injury. Our PTs love helping people work through fear avoidance, because although nudging forward with more movement can understandably feel incredibly scary to people dealing with musculoskeletal (MSK) pain, there are lots of research-backed tools and techniques to help people overcome this fear.
One of those tools is exploring your “movement sweet spot.”
Our Hinge Health Experts
Maureen Lu, PT, DPT
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
What’s a ‘Movement Sweet Spot’?
Your movement sweet spot is like the Goldilocks point of exercise — not too much, not too little, just right. Working at your movement sweet spot allows you to get stronger, improve pain, and enjoy your movement routine.
“Finding your movement sweet spot means you’re doing enough activity to feel challenged without blowing past your max,” says Maureen Lu, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. “In other words, it feels hard, but you’re able to maintain your balance, stability, and control.”
It’s important to find your movement sweet spot because pushing yourself beyond what your body is ready for can contribute to a pain flare, which may exacerbate fear avoidance behaviors. On the other hand, not pushing yourself hard enough means that you’re missing out on opportunities to increase strength and reduce your pain long term.
So how do you know what your sweet spot is? Read on to figure it out.
How Much Is Too Much?
If you experience a pain uptick with exercise, it does not mean that the movement is inherently bad for you. Sometimes, it’s a sign that your body is getting stronger and more resilient. In some cases, though, it can indicate that you did more than your body was ready for at that moment and you need to temporarily scale back while your body adjusts.
If you think about your pain on a scale of one to 10, if it’s somewhere between a three and five after activity, it means that you’ve likely challenged yourself a good amount, says Dr. Lu. “But if you go past that zone, or you can’t recover well — if your discomfort is actually limiting how you move for a few days — that’s a pretty clear sign you went past your sweet spot,” she adds.
What About Too Little?
In order to get stronger so you can prevent and manage pain, it’s important to challenge your body and pain system by gradually moving more and with more intensity. If you feel like you’re not getting stronger and your workouts are boring, it’s a good indication that you can nudge into that challenge a little more to find your movement sweet spot.
“If an activity doesn’t feel harder than what you naturally do in everyday activities, you can probably nudge yourself a little harder next time,” says Dr. Lu.
So How Do You Find Your Movement Sweet Spot?
The movement sweet spot may seem like an abstract concept. Plus, it changes. Your movement sweet spot might have involved 10 minutes of brisk walking daily when you first started at Hinge Health, but now that you’ve built strength, flexibility, and resilience, you can do more exercise at a higher intensity more frequently without pushing yourself too far.
Here are some tips from Hinge Health physical therapists that might help you find your sweet spot:
1. Think in terms of progressions. One of the biggest mistakes people make is pushing themselves to their limit from the get-go. Start with gentle, low-impact exercises and gradually increase intensity as your body adapts. If you want to be able to run three miles but you’ve never run before, you have to gradually work your way there, says Dr. Lu. You might want to start walking, then walk farther distances. Then try a walk/run. Then run short distances, and continue to progress from there. “These tiny, achievable steps help you operate at your movement sweet spot and allow your body to build resilience over time,” says Dr. Lu.
2. Start with low-impact. Low-impact activities such as swimming, cycling, or walking provide a lot of health benefits while still being gentle on your joints. This allows you to move and gradually increase your activity level without flying past your movement sweet spot.
3. Look for your mid-range. “When you’re trying to find your movement sweet spot, you want to understand what your full range of motion is, and then work within your mid-range,” says Dr. Lu. Take squats, for instance. A mini squat might be too easy. But a deep squat with a lot of additional weight might be too hard for you right now. Your mid-range, or your movement sweet spot, could be a standard squat while holding a 10-pound weight.
4. Include strengthening activities. No matter what you do to move your body, your routine should include some strengthening exercises. This can include a wide variety of activities that can all be adjusted to your fitness level, such as weight training with free weights (dumbbells or barbells), using resistance machines or resistance bands, doing bodyweight exercises (like push-ups or squats), or isometric exercises, which involve static holds (e.g., wall sits or planks). In other words, it can be anything that engages your muscles to help increase muscular strength and endurance.
Hinge Health exercise therapy is a great starting point for building strength. It helps your muscles get stronger and more resilient so you can adapt to a variety of exercise types and intensities. That just means you’ll be able to do more with less pain.
5. Embrace variety. Experiment with different types of physical activities that target different muscle groups. This prevents monotony and helps you discover what resonates with you. For example, if you typically walk for exercise, try swimming or cycling and see how it feels. Check out a yoga video or try a new exercise class with a friend. Even changing up the style of the same activity is impactful (e.g., alternating between a steady jog and higher-intensity intervals).
6. Think like a scientist. “If you’re struggling to find your movement sweet spot, it can help to think scientifically for a short time. Meaning: Try to only change one factor at a time,” says Dr. Lu. So instead of increasing the time of your strengthening workouts and setting a new goal to do tai chi every day, just choose one of those until you know how your body will respond. “If you try too many new things at once and find that you’ve gone past your sweet spot, it’s hard to determine which activity you pushed too hard,” says Dr. Lu.
7. Avoid testing your limits on consecutive days. When you try a new or challenging workout, you might not know if you went past your movement sweet spot for a few days because of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), explains Dr. Lu. “After trying a new strengthening workout, for instance, I suggest doing something that involves lighter cardio the next day. That will give you a better sense of whether that new or challenging workout still fits within your sweet spot.”
8. Prioritize consistency over intensity. Consistency is key when it comes to finding your movement sweet spot. It's better to engage in regular, moderate exercise that you can sustain over time rather than pushing yourself way past your limit sporadically.
9. Adapt and modify. As your body changes, so should your exercise routine. Don't be afraid to adapt and modify your movements based on your current condition. If certain exercises become too challenging, modify them. If you’re taking a step or cardio class, try using a smaller step (or no step) or lighter hand weights. If you find yourself doing the same exercises with the same weights and number of repetitions for several weeks and it begins to feel too easy, find ways to slowly increase the intensity or duration so you continue to challenge your body.
10. Find joy in the process. Instead of focusing solely on end results or fitness milestones, focus on enjoying the journey. Find activities that bring you joy and make you forget that you're technically exercising. Whether it's dancing to your favorite music or taking a scenic hike, the more enjoyable the experience, the more likely you are to stick with it.
11. Don’t forget about flexibility and mobility. When people think of their movement sweet spot, they tend to think about cardio (say, running faster or longer) and strength training (say, lifting heavier weights) first. And while those are important components of a movement routine, flexibility and mobility exercises are also essential components of managing pain. Activities like stretching, Pilates, and yoga in addition to your Hinge Health exercise therapy help to improve your range of motion and reduce muscle tension, making other activities — whether it’s walking the dog or playing pickleball — easier.
12. Listen to your body. Pay close attention to how your body responds to different activities. Notice the feelings of discomfort, fatigue, or exhilaration. Note any pain triggers and ask yourself if it’s discomfort that comes with healing, or pain that exceeds a tolerable level for you. This self-awareness is fundamental in tailoring your movement routine to suit your body's unique needs.
13. Ask for help. The members of your Hinge Health care team are there to help you every step of the way. They can work with you to design a tailored exercise plan, including your exercise therapy. Your physical therapist, for instance, can provide valuable insights into specific exercises and movements that specifically target your pain points while minimizing the risk of a pain flare.
Everyone's body is unique, so take the time to discover what movements work best for you. There will be times when you need to push yourself a little harder to find that sweet spot, and there will also be setbacks that require you to scale back temporarily. “Your movement sweet spot is a window that is variable. It changes throughout your life and it changes week to week,” says Dr. Lu. Pain upticks, sore muscles, and other challenges are all a normal part of this process. “Don’t be too hard on yourself if you find yourself outside of your movement sweet spot,” Dr. Lu adds. But progressively moving more and continually striving to work within your movement sweet spot will allow you to do more with less pain.
Your movement sweet spot is a level of activity that feels hard, but you’re still able to maintain your balance, stability, and control.
It’s best to nudge into a challenging new movement. This helps you get stronger but should prevent you from blowing past your movement sweet spot.
Your movement sweet spot changes over time. You will be able to increase your activity level with time, but it’s okay to scale back periodically, too.