by Frederick C. Hatfield
Old Vince Lombardi was a dinosaur by today’s standards of excellence. Why, he became famous for these immortal words: “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” Phooey! I spit on fatigue? Fatigue is the spark which ignites. It is the means to greatness. It is the vehicle to success. Fatigue only makes cowards of the uncommitted.
Now fatigue – especially from lactic acid buildup towards the end of a set – causes pain. This pain must be reckoned with. Don’t mistake this kind of pain with the pain resulting from injury. Injury pain is a different breed of animal.
Let’s set the parameters for this discourse on pain. First, there would be no such thing as sport without the existence of pain. Without risk there could be no sport. Since no sport is thoroughly safe, pain must be expected. Things happen. Whether you cope with it or not is your business. Me? I choose to totally dominate the situation.
There are ways at your disposal which will allow you to dominate pain and to use it rather than being subjugated by it.
But what’s most important from my point of view is that by mastering pain – by improving your ability to dominate your pain sensations – you will have allowed yourself that much greater measure of strength.
That’s right. Pain intolerance limits strength output. Don’t you doubt it. Whether you’re a wimp or a macho-man, pain will bring you to your knees. Pain will make you stop pushing and cringe for mercy. It’ll make you cease your set and put the weight back on the rack.
Coping with pain is shortsighted because in the philosophy of sport there is no room for coping strategies. Coping, by definition, means that you are the underdog. You must learn to dominate all situations, and your pain tolerance level is of utmost importance in your dominance. Question is, how do you become stronger by dominating pain?
There are three broad categories of pain of the sort athletes must expect to face: 1.) the pain of extreme effort. 2.) the pain of extreme fatigue, and 3) the pain of injury. The first two are part and parcel of sport, while the third constitutes the element of risk spoken of above. It is the third which we try to eliminate. The other two we just try and put up with despite the discomforts associated with them.
Indeed, the first two are typically thought of as signals to athletes that adaptive stress is being delivered to their bodies, and are therefore positive in their respective displeasure.
This is not always the case. In fact, it is one of the greatest hoaxes in the world of sports. In sports, it has led to monumentally stupid practices which collectively have tended to severely reduce the potential for strength and muscular gains.
Consider that post-exercise muscle soreness has always been thought of by athletes as the “signal” for development in the location of the painful sensation. All of us have experienced it at one time or another. Indeed, most of you have probably actively attempted to induce it, as if this were the proper way to train.
Most up-to-date scientists realize that post-exercise soreness stems from the release of a biochemical called hydroxyproline from torn connective tissue. This substance causes the localized pain you experience the following day. It is not a signal of localized development as so many believe, and it is not to be sought after. It is to be avoided because it is, in the long term, counterproductive to your training goals.
Such connective tissue damage is called “microtrauma,” and cumulative microtrauma can cause a limiting of your growth potential due to adhesions and tissue scarring. It can also cause major injury if left to continue its cumulative effect. Microtrauma, if left to accumulate over time, becomes macrotrauma.
In a very real sense, cumulative microtrauma – and therefore post-exercise muscle soreness – falls into the third category of pain – injury. While it is a result of extreme effort, and while it is often associated with extreme fatigue, it is still injury. An analogy will illustrate what I mean.
If you rub your hands on a rough surface long enough, one of two things can happen. Either you’ll develop calluses (a positive adaptive response) or you’ll get blisters (a destructive process). One is adaptive growth, the other injury from too much stress. Similarly, post-exercise soreness signals injury, and is an example of a destructive process much the same as blisters are.
The key to avoiding the blisters and getting the calluses instead is to know exactly how much pressure to apply and how long to apply it. In sports, the task if the same. How much stress and how long to apply it are the art and science of our sport.
The belief that your efforts have been in vain unless you experience post-exercise soreness has been responsible for yet another very damaging myth in sport. That is the belief that you can shape an individual muscle. You can’t do that, and you’re wasting your time if you try. More importantly, you’re backsliding if you seek post-exercise soreness as a signal that your funky exercise movements are working.
For example, take the simple bench press movement. With a close grip, you feel pain along the origin,(the sternum), bit with a wide grip, you’ll experience a mild post-exercise out near the tie-in (auxiliary region), or the outer pecs.
Your illogical conclusion is that wide-grip benches are good for developing the outer pecs, and close-grip benches are good for developing the inner pecs.
This is ridiculous.
The different pain locations merely signal the fact the mechanical stress in the respective area was too great, and the microtrauma was inflicted, causing release of hydroxyproline in the area.
The same reasoning can be applied to preacher curls versus incline curls, or twisting movement curls versus hammer curls. If your biceps has a gap between it and the forearm, there’s nothing you can do about it. If your biceps is short, it’s short. If it’s long, it’s long. All you can ever hope to do is develop it as fully as possible as possible, accounting for how it “fits” in comparison to other bodyparts for maximum aesthetic appeal overall by variably developing each bodypart accordingly. You cannot alter your genetic predisposition for an individual muscle’s shape potential.
But let’s get back to pain in training. How much pain is good? Can you learn to overcome pain? How can you distinguish “good” pain from destructive pain? What about the “no-pain, no gain” approach?
Often, cumulative microtrauma will cause movement-limiting adhesions. These same adhesions account for your inability to put on expected muscular size because the muscle cells are literally “bound” together so strongly that outward growth is severely restricted.
Dr. Gary Glum, Founding Director of the Institute for Neuromuscular Re-Education in
Of course, the best way to approach this problem is to avoid post-exercise soreness in the first place. To do this, simply approach your training a bit more scientifically. Remember that overstress – using too much weight or too many reps and sets – is not good in any sport endeavor. The most common cause of overstress is negative movements, or eccentric muscle contracture.
A hot post-workout whirlpool followed by a vigorous cross-fiber massage are also excellent therapies. However, remember that all these techniques can do is prevent or minimize the discomfort associated with tissue damage. Only scientific training can prevent the damage from occurring in the first place.
Injuries, once healed, often leave nerve endings entrapped in the scar tissue that forms. The result is pain upon movement. It is called “useless” pain because it doesn’t serve a useful function insofar as warning you of impending tissue damage is concerned. Again, neuromuscular re-education is extremely beneficial in treating this kind of common problem. So too is flexibility training, particularly dynamic flexibility training and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching. Another more easy-to-understand term PNF stretching is “partner resistance stretching.”)
Various injuries can cause chronic pain. This kind of pain is often very debilitating to your training and should be dealt with. There are several ways of dealing with chronic pain:
Mental Rehearsal – By performing a movement perfectly, you can effectively eliminate often unwanted, pain-producing movements.
Progressive Relaxation – By alternately relaxing and contracting each individual muscle, especially the painful area, you can learn to minimize the amount of involvement (and therefore the amount of pain it causes) of that muscle.
Systematic Desensitization – A painful muscle often makes you cower upon having to perform a movement that involves the use of that muscle. By systematically performing the steps you must go through to accomplish the movement, you can make the movement more automatic and thereby reduce the pain.
Transneural Stimulation – This electrical stimulation technique “tricks” your brain into feeling no pain by effectively blocking that specific neural from going to the brain.
Ultrasound – Sound waves of specific frequencies stimulate blood flow to a muscle, blood vessels open and extra-cellular fluid is removed thereby helping a muscle to relax.
Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation (RICE) – Of course, this should be your first approach to any sort of chronic pain associated with injury. Rests gives injuries a chance to heal, and ice reduces inflammation and swelling as does elevation and compression.
Perhaps the most common form of pain to lifters and other athletes alike is the pain of intense effort and fatigue – the first two classes of pain mentioned earlier. Take note of these important distinctions between the different sources of pain. Pain isn’t limited to the mental and physical of injury.
The pain associated with effort of fatigue can – and often does – become debilitating. This pain can lead you to believe that you’re in trouble, producing the anxiety-provoking experience and thereby increasing muscle tension, heart rate, respiratory distress and sensitivity to painful training.
This vicious cycle perpetuated further anxiety, and your training becomes a nightmare. Eventually you quit in sheer terror of the grueling task before you.
While the methods cited above are helpful in combating this sort of cycle, the responsibility is ultimately yours: do you want to succeed badly enough to endure the pain? Are you willing to make the sacrifice? Do you realize that such pain can actually be used to your advantage? Do you understand the difference between adaptive stress and injury-provoking stress? Do you have the will to exceed the bounds imposed upon you be conviction?
To acquire these traits, you must first acquire passion.