We’ve all heard it being uttered, suggested and sometimes screamed at us. The cliché of ‘NO PAIN, NO GAIN’ can be traced back the ancient Greeks, and has since been cited and philosophized many times. Examples throughout history include ‘there is no success without hard work’, ‘without labour nothing prospers’, ‘according to the pain is the reward’ and ‘man’s fate is according to his pains’. It’s interesting to note that so far none of these examples have their origins within the fitness industry – Until . . .
More recently and probably most prolifically the phrase was popularized by Jane Fonda in her workout videos in the 1980’s and has since become the mantra of gym trainers, body builders, athletes and their coaches in their attempts to motivate, break records and generally justify ignoring a key neural and hormonal signaling pathway of the human body. From video bloggers to Instagram meme’s we cant escape this soundbite; perhaps however, it’s time for a more helpful set of phrases for encouragement, and not just in relation to physical activity.
Why do we feel physical pain, or psychological friction and what tools and techniques can I implement to maximize my success?
There’s two elements to be precise about and to address – one being physical pain and the other being psychological resistance. It should be noted though that these two aspects are not necessarily or always mutually exclusive.
Pain science is complex. On its most basic level however, the feeling of pain is the body’s way of telling you something is wrong. We should take this seriously.
Phycological resistance is often inferred when using the word ‘Pain’. In the context of the ‘No pain No gain’ mantra this is sometimes something we need to address with compassion and try to understand what the resistance is. Other times, it may indeed be correct to push through and get over the hump of lacking enthusiasm and just start.
How to avoid injury
Pain could be very obvious such as a physical injury like a broken bone (or stress fracture) or an intense or acute muscle spasm. It could also be more physiological like for example extreme fatigue or lethargy post physical activity. A combination of the above two symptoms would be extended and chronic DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness); We’ve all been there when we’ve started a new fitness regime or pushed harder than usual and feel sore for a couple of days afterwards – but if this is a regular or chronic state it shouldn’t be ignored.
If you feel pain during or after physical activity you should stop and ask yourself a few questions –
Do I need to carry out a check up on my movement patterns or exercise technique?
Record yourself with your smartphone and watch it back, or seek the assistance of a professional. Check that you are training intentionally and not habitually – Do you have restricted range of motion or asymmetrical abilities? Are you aware of and in control of your posture whilst moving? Are you hyperextending and asserting excessive tension on your ligaments? If running or jumping are your mechanics and landings efficient or are they dangerously aggressive?
Your body may feel fine with the occasional badly performed exercise or a short activity as a one-off, but when bad habits set in they will gradually cause unnecessary and irreparable wear and tear on your joints and ligaments. It’s best to re-asses your movement patterns before that happens.
Is this activity or exercise too intense (too heavy, too far, too complex, excessive in duration) for my level of physical ability?
Many people make the mistake of increasing their loading or intensity of activity at a pace that is out of sync with our body’s adaptation mechanisms. A simple rule of thumb is that you should continue with the current level of your activity or training until it becomes so easy that you can do it easily and repeatedly without causing much fatigue. This is usually a case of weeks or months rather than days.
Try and be tuned in to the following as signs that you may need to ease off and re-program your activities;
- Musculoskeletal pain
- Cardio Vascular or Respiratory Pain
- Dizziness and / or plummeting energy
- Long recovery times / chronic fatigue / regularly feeling ill.
Optimizing these elements is complex, but a simplified starting place would be to –
- Prioritize consistency and regularity of activity over quantity or intensity (daily, for shorter amounts of time/distance/resistance).
- Get your diet in check with, home prepared, good quality nutrition (varieties of – Meats (including organs), Fish, Eggs, small amounts seasonal and local fruits and veg; avoiding refined sugars, seed oils additives and preservatives).
- Prioritize your sleep.
- Get regular exposure to the sun, and if possible be outside at dawn and at dusk.
Of course depending on the frequency, severity or persistence of any issue you may be experiencing, it may also be prudent to check in with a competent medical practitioner. Bear in mind however, that if you haven’t got the above list of basic lifestyle habits in check, then additional diagnosis or intervention may not be accurate, relevant or appropriate.
Is this activity appropriate or relevant for my human biomechanics and could I be best putting my efforts in to more effective training activities?
One common factor within the crazes and gimmicks of the fitness industry is that most training programs don’t take into account our biomechanics as a bipedal species, and that our physiology evolved to be able to travel long distances (mostly at low intensity) each day in our search for food. As such, training for optimum movement abilities and applicable strength should as much as is possible mimic our primary movement patterns such as walking, running, and even fighting. Muscle isolation or spot targeting training to a specific part of the body in a repetitive way may increase the muscle mass in that particular area, but won’t contribute to superior movement efficiency, stamina or avoiding pains and kinesiological imbalances.
Remember, big biceps, beach body abs, or a bikini butt should be as a symbol of great physical condition and underlying health, rather than a facade hiding skin deep poor metabolic health.
Is this really pain? Is this just moderate discomfort or the feeling of exertion or is this a sign to take a break and analyze the situation.
All being said, its ok to push yourself a little. If something is difficult and requires mental will power (for example, running the extra few hundred meters to the next crossing, or making your gym session just a few minutes longer with one extra (attainable) exercise) then you should absolutely go for it. Will power and discipline is often referred to as a muscle that also needs training, so as long as your exertion is in moderation then you should totally aim for the small gains.
If however the pain is more than just a question of will power, or the lack of drive comes from knowing regularly experiencing some of the symptoms previously mentioned, then work smart and be sure to reassess how to continue safely.
Remind yourself the purpose of your workout or activity and how to quantify that (if necessary).
At The Health Fix we always prioritize the goal of being healthy over and above any individual desires for specific achievements. This is because many common goals are usually attained along the way, but the method of achieving them is usually more sustainable and contributes to longer term healthy habits whilst avoiding generating psychological perspectives that are unhelpful or inhibiting.
To further highlight the point, here are some examples of where emphasizing lasting Health as the goal ticks the boxes of other targets or motivators:
‘I want to have abs for the summer’ VS ‘since achieving and maintaining a healthy weight and proper metabolic function I have a lean physique and keep my abs year round without suffering’
‘I want to be able to run a marathon, and fast’ VS ‘having worked on improving the efficiency and strength of my movement patterns am I now able to run further and faster than I ever imagined, without feeling drained or in pain’
‘I must be able lift more weight so I can burn off the food I’m going eat later’ VS ‘My body has normal metabolic and hormonal function and I don’t have the cravings to eat junk, I recognize the feeling of being satiated when eating, and I don’t have the lulls of energy throughout the day that drive me to graze and snack regularly’
If you consistently aim for Health, as a biproduct you will consistently achieve the look and physical ability that you desire. This in turn will bring you the confidence to be proud of and trust in your level of fitness.
The best way to avoid psychological resistance and promote healthy habits
Psychological or emotional resistance is often triggered by the perception of enormity of required effort or suffering. This may derive from a previous experience or an unrelated pre-conception.
It’s ok, its not your fault, it’s hormonal – BUT IT IS IN YOUR POWER
Serotonin – The happy hormone, The mood stabilizer
Dopamine – The pleasure hormone, The motivator
Endorphins – The body’s natural painkillers (think morphine), The relaxant
Cortisol – The stress hormone,
Adrenaline – The fear hormone
You may have heard of these hormones that the body produces in response to certain situations. These ones are the most commonly referred to, however our endocrine system is highly complex, and not all response pathways are yet fully understood. What we do know however is that there is a fine balance to be hit with all our hormone levels in order to maintain optimum energy and concentration with maximum motivation and minimal resistance.
We can’t control for past experiences that may influence our perception of difficulty or pain, and we don’t need to apologize for whatever proverbial friction there may be that makes starting, or advancing physical activity seem like an enormous effort, but we can put in place some behavioral techniques helping us to overcome the debilitating feeling of overwhelm.
Whether it be something fitness related, a project at work or a task you’ve been procrastinating at home, it is very possible and usually quite easy to side step the metaphorical mountain and generate the motivation that will lead to much greater gains than you initially intended. Here’s a few pointers –
- Use the ‘5 minute rule’ – For most tasks or activities, doing just five minutes of it seems trivial, easy and attainable. It may be that you just do five minutes and move on – at least you’ve done more than if you didn’t start at all. It is also likely that you’ll get absorbed in the task at hand, and without realizing it you will continue for longer without any suffering or lacking motivation. And if you don’t continue you can still be proud of yourself for doing 5 minutes of something you have been putting off.
- Start easy. For physical activity start at 10% exertion of what you think you can handle. Get good at doing that. When you feel like going harder then go for it, but don’t push too hard. Remember that cortisol hormone we just spoke about? When something gets too difficult the knock-on-effect can result in lasting fatigue and lacking motivation for next time. Keep it attainable and it will be sustainable!
- Understand that consistency is better than intensity so use the 5 minute rule every day, rather than trying to cram your activity in to 30 minutes once per week. This practice allows for physical musculoskeletal adaptation, the development of healthy norms, and inherently removes that huge overwhelming mountain that was previously in the way.
- Prioritize your nutrition and sleep. As mentioned above, with poor nutrition and not enough rest, your hormonal (endocrine) system will regularly be out of whack. With clean eating and sufficient sleep you’ll be amazed at how much more energized you feel and that maintaining motivation becomes easier.
Keep in mind that while the ‘No Pain No Gain’ mantra can be terrible for your physical and mental health, if understood in a more pragmatic manor moderate discomfort or inconvenience can really help give you sense of proportion and perspective for avoiding these obstacles in the future. Be thankful that you get to do this (challenge), but train (or work) smart, not hard, and avoid Pain to Maximize the Gains.