Pain is necessary for growth. Not just for muscle growth, but for any type of progress–mental, physical, spiritual, you name it. If growth were possible without pain, people would be getting stronger, faster, smarter, leaner, and healthier every which way you look! Pain is the barrier that keeps people from doing what they need to do to reach their goals.
Pain is physical.
When most people think of pain, they picture a physical sensation: Pain is the feeling you get when your muscles work really hard. But why does it hurt?
During strength training, when your muscle cells can’t get enough oxygen to meet their immediate demands for energy, they will make energy without the use of oxygen in a process known as anaerobic metabolism. One of the byproducts of anaerobic metabolism is lactic acid, which is the substance that causes the horrible burning pain in your quads when you are doing squats, for example.
When you “feel the burn,” what do you do? Some people will stop their set at that point because they don’t like the uncomfortable sensation of even a mild burn in their muscles. Most people will push on for a few more reps, allowing the burning feeling to increase to the point of mild-to-moderate pain before stopping. Some others will just keep going until the pain is nearly unbearable and hurts so much that they cannot imagine doing even one more rep. A few brave souls will get to that point and then do another few reps anyway, almost disconnecting their physical bodies from the part of their mind that is screaming in pain and saying “STOP!” They feel the pain and do it anyway.
Pain is mental.
So is pain purely a physical phenomenon? Not at all actually…it’s quite the opposite! While the physical act of exercise is the stimulus for the pain to occur, the perception of pain happens entirely in the central nervous system! Neurons in the brain and spinal cord are where the pain is actually being generated in response to what is happening in the working muscles. When you work out, stretch, tension, and lactic acidosis are all being sensed by nerve endings in the muscles and then transmitted back to the central nervous system for processing.
The easiest way to convince yourself that this is true is to think of the effects of opiate pain medications. These drugs work by crossing into the brain and spinal cord and binding to opiate receptors, causing analgesia–the relief of pain. Take a bunch of oxycodone and your pain response is blocked in the central nervous system, regardless of what is going on in tissues that are causing the pain. It’s much more complicated than that, but for our purposes this simple analogy will suffice.
What is the purpose of pain?
So why do we even feel pain if it is just created by our own nervous systems? There are probably many answers to this question, but the most obvious answer is this: Pain keeps us safe.
Touch a hot frying pain and your body will instantly recoil, even before the pain message makes it way to your brain. This is a reflex designed to protect you from being burned. Get stung by a few Yellowjackets while gardening too close to their nest and you will run away in pain, probably cursing while looking over your shoulder for more of those little yellow stripped demons. Pain is a negative teacher. We learn to avoid things that cause pain: Pain teaches us what NOT to do.
Pain is more than a physical feeling created in our minds however. Pain is also closely tied to the emotions of fear and anxiety. Don’t believe me? What happens when you make a terrible financial decision? What happens when you make a bad choice in a relationship and have to deal with the fallout? Fear of pain, anxiety over making a choice that might end in pain, pain itself…all of these things are expected to happen in the situations above!
Pain is our teacher. It protects us from doing things that are harmful, unwise, or just plain stupid.
But should we always listen to pain? What if the pain is not telling us that something is seriously wrong, and is just an annoying sensation, like a side-effect of a medication that is otherwise working really well?
How you respond to pain determines what you will become in life.
Living a life solely based on avoiding pain will lead to a very safe and comfortable existence. You will be safe on your comfortable couch, safely eating calorie-rich foods to avoid the painful feeling of hunger, safely driving in your comfortable car to the store and parking really close to the entrance to avoid the pain of walking more than 20 feet at a time, and safely avoiding exercise to not risk a painful injury or that constant feeling of discomfort while actually performing the workout. You will safely grow older and fatter and your arteries will slowly clog with painless cholesterol plaques that will rupture someday and put you into the final painless and most comfortable state of all: Death.
Embrace some pain and you will continue to do hard things, improve, grow stronger and smarter, and in general have a better life than our poor dead friend above. Now I am not saying to embrace pain by jumping out of a second-story window just for the fun of it…that is dangerous and serves no real purpose. I am suggesting that you should not shy away from activities that although temporarily painful, are overall safe and in the end are actually good for you.
Working out, while painful, is usually quite safe if you respect a few basic rules:
- Use good form
- Warm up and stretch
- Don’t handle loads your joints and/or muscles are not ready for
- Allow yourself adequate recovery between sessions
If you are doing all of the above (you should be, these are baked in to the Q15 program) than it is safe to sometimes push through the pain, even when your body tells you to stop!
The problem with creating an exercise plan to follow is that sometimes things are unnecessarily limiting. If I tell you to do 5 sets of 10 squats, what if that is not enough? Mentally, you will get those 10 reps and feel like it’s time to stop; doing one extra rep seems like unnecessary work. You never really find out what you are capable of doing that way!
Every once and a while, it is good to test yourself. Take the number of reps you are aiming for and double it! Make that number your new goal, and when you reach it, see if you can do even more. These numbers are often just an illusion, and you may find out that you are capable of doing much more than you thought.
“Can I do just one more rep?”
This question is the trick to getting yourself to break through plateaus and keep going through pain. Think of it like walking. Put one foot in front of the other, and stop when you get there. Just think about doing one more rep at a time until you hit your goal. Can you do one more rep? You will often find the answer is YES, and you can keep going to 20 reps and sometimes well past that too.
Ignore the pain for a short time, and just focus on this binary question. “Can I do one more rep?” If the answer is yes, just do it. If the answer is no, ask yourself if you honestly cannot complete another rep or are you just responding out of fear of causing more pain. Remember this type of pain is relatively safe and you are not going to die by doing one more rep.
Don’t be a slave to fear, especially about the fear of physical pain that is keeping you from meeting your potential. There is plenty to fear in life, but the temporary pain of exercise is not one of these things!
In fact, you should fear the opposite: A painless comfortable existence where you pass through life never testing yourself, always afraid of discomfort or failure. Such a life leads to the kind of regret that is far worse than any physical pain could be.