Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Not Just Pumping Iron - Part Thirteen

The Meaning of Pain, Injury, and Competition

"Enduring agony is where it's at." 

I heard Larry Scott proclaim this several years ago at one of his bodybuilding seminars. Presented as a basic axiom of bodybuilding, his proclamation has stuck with me. In another seminar, I heard Bill Pearl say, "Something must hurt all the time if you are a bodybuilder." These immortals of the iron world were calling attention to two applications of the weight lifter's mantra, "No pain, No gain." (In some forms of Eastern meditation, a simple sound or phrase is repeated over and over. The carefully selected sound or phrase is chosen for its deeper meaning and its ability to resonate in the spiritual centers of the meditator. Is known as a mantra.) By now, well known to lifters and even many non-lifters, this mantra contains the essential guide to the activity of weight training. But, as well known and oft heard as it is -- No pain, No Gain -- the mantra is not always understood. So, let us delve into its meaning, the very meaning of pain, for the lifter.

Growth often involves pain. Not always. But, often. This fact is reflected in our language by the traditional phrase, "growing pains." At the very least, growth is disruptive. Growth requires change, and change, by definition, involves a restructuring. To restructure, first requires a destructuring. The existing structure must, to some degree, be destructured in order that the new structure can be created. The sequence of growth can be conceptualized as a process of destroying the old structure in order to allow the reconstituting of a more advanced structure. Pain accomplishes both of these stages.

An example may clarify this growth sequence and the relationship of pain to that sequence. Although these general principles apply to growth in all realms -- physical, mental, emotional, spiritual -- I will use an example in the spiritual realm. Consider the basic phenomenon of bodybuilding. The bodybuilder has a muscle of a particular size, shape, and strength. Wanting to grow it to a more desired size and shape, he or she exercises it hard. Hard working of the muscle creates a burn during part of the exercise set. The burn may be a sharp, hot feeling or it may be more of a deep ache. It may vary from slight to absolutely agonizing. This burn results from the buildup of lactic acid and perhaps other chemicals in the muscle tissue as byproducts of the work performed. The muscle has been overloaded. This overload has caused some degree of structural alteration. Some destruction has taken place. It will require several hours, perhaps several days, for the muscle to reconstitute, to repair, to rebuild. During this period of repair, there will probably be soreness in the muscle. This soreness may vary from slight and almost imperceptible to painful. It is currently believed that this "next day soreness" is the result of micro-tears in the muscle tissue. The "damaged" muscle tissue is repaired beyond its state prior to the "damage." So, the old structure was to some degree torn down in order that it could be rebuilt. It is a natural characteristic of the growth process that the product of restructuring is so constituted that it can handle the previous overload without being overloaded. It other words, the restructured muscle is stronger than the muscle which was destructured. And, to be stronger, it has been made bigger. Thus, the bodybuilder grows bigger, more shapely muscles. In the process of destructuring he creates the burn. In the destructured state, while restructuring is taking place, he experiences muscle soreness.

So, what Larry Scott was saying is that one of the secrets of bodybuilding is to work the muscles into the pain zone. It is the burn that is the biofeedback which tells the bodybuilder that he is stressing the muscle sufficiently. Although it is possible to stimulate muscle growth without creating a burn, the level and type of stress which stimulates maximal growth tends to create that sensation.

It is the bodybuilder, the seeker of large and shapely muscles, who is most interested in creating a burn. For the Olympic lifter and the powerlifter, the seekers of strength, the burn is of less interest. The low repetition workouts with heavy weights which the two latter lifters use for most of their training tend not to produce burns. But, even without burns there is discomfort and sometimes pain during a lift. The Olympic lifter and powerlifter become familiar with the discomfort and pain of straining with a hard lift.

All lifters know the pain of delayed onset muscle soreness, "next day soreness." If one has exercised hard enough to stimulate muscle growth in size and/or strength of muscles, one will feel sore a few hours later. It is to this fact that Bill Pearl was alluding in my quote of him several paragraphs back.

And, so, the lifters' mantra -- No pain, No gain.

The serious seeker of growth must be willing to endure the pain which is the byproduct of his seeking. The challenge is to come to terms with the pain, to accept it, perhaps even to embrace it. An instructive example of this is offered by Raymond Coffin in his Poetry for Crazy Cowboys and Zen Monks.

Those not familiar with the training of a Zen monk probably envision a rather soft, perhaps even indulgent life. Scenes of serenity, such as quiet meditations and walks in gardens, breathtakingly beautiful in their simplicity, may come to mind. Through his poetry, Coffin describes scenes in stark contrast to these. He writes graphically of the o-sesshin, a seven day period of concentrated meditation. He tells of the strenuous effort and intense perseverance required to endure seven days with only three or four hours of sleep each night, and hour upon hour of meditation. The pain in the feet, knees, and waist build to the point that one thinks he is about to die. Usually, on the fourth day, Coffin relates, the monk stops running from his pain, accepting it as part of his personal experience. At this point the real work begins! Now, the monk begins to push.

In monasteries of the Renzai sect, there are about six o-sesshins each year. The most difficult is the one undertaken from the first to the seventh of December, a celebration of the enlightenment of Gautama (the Buddha). It is said that Gautama tried many severe disciplines, and not finding enlightenment through any of these, he sat under the bodhi tree for seven days. On the morning of the eighth day he had his great awakening. During the celebration of the Rohatsu sesshin the Zen monk may sleep only two hours each night.

Beyond the o-sesshins, life in the monastery still can be difficult. "Excruciating experience" is the phrase chosen by Coffin to describe certain of the times. The most difficult year is the first, when the novice monk is on the bottom, working the hardest and sleeping the least. Coffin remarks that ". . . the ability of the body to adapt to adverse conditions is most amazing." 

Is this not what lifting weights is all about? Lifting weights is a way of creating adverse conditions for the body to adapt to, in its most amazing way. Push it, strain it, stretch it, today, see adaptation tomorrow. And oh, yes, your pain will confirm your success in creating an adverse condition.

I wanted to present the above perspective on life in the Zen monastery to show an example of the living of our mantra -- No pain, No gain -- in a context other than that of the world of iron. In addition, I wanted to show that this mantra applies to a highly spiritual discipline. Many examples could be enlisted from realms which appear much closer to the realm of weights. Going beyond these examples, I wanted to draw upon similarities between the disciplined path of lifting and the disciplined path of meditation, similarities of which the reader, by now, is aware.

Returning to the world of iron, one of the most personally revealing discussions of pain is that offered by Arnold Schwarzenegger. He tells of his coming to terms with pain. Wanting to shock his muscles into growth, he and a training partner would take the weights out into the country and work one body part for hours. On one such outing, he reports doing 55 sets of squats. His assessment is that his body had no chance to survive except to grow. It sound like a truism when Schwarzenegger says that he and his partner experienced a lot of pain. That, he says, is the first time that he knew pain could become pleasure. In his own words, "It was a fascinating feeling to gain size and strength from pain. All of a sudden I was looking forward to it as something pleasurable . . . I had just converted the pain into pleasure."

The key to this conversion of pain into pleasure is the shift in meaning. Pain, in and of itself, is a strong sensation which demands attention. When it is perceived as meaning danger, that is, when fear is the emotional meaning attributed to it, it is very objectionable and something to be escaped. What I am calling attention to is the difference between sensation and perception. As pure sensation, pain is tolerable, even though unpleasant, throughout a considerable range of intensity. If it is perceived as having a desirable meaning, the range of tolerability can be broadened, and a mild to moderate level of pain, paradoxically, can even be experienced as pleasurable. This is based on the remarkable human ability to "make meaning" of sensations, thus creating perceptions. And, it is one's perception, the meaning one attributes to one's sensations, that is of importance. It is to one's  perceptions that the person reacts or responds.

In an  earlier chapter I discussed three body scripts and their corresponding personality styles. Each of the personality styles shows a particular attitude toward the pain encountered in weight training. Shifting to the sensation-perception distinction which I am making here, we can look at those personality styles again. For the lifter with a "disuse your body" script (the phobic personality style) the pains of training are perceived as danger signals. So, this lifter believes that he is hurting himself when a muscle burn begins to develop. Likewise, DOMS is perceived as evidence that he "overdid it." Such soreness is perceived as evidence that an injury has been incurred. So, this lifter reacts with some degree of fear whenever a muscle burn or muscle soreness occurs, or when a personal best requires a determined grinding slowness of execution. So to speak. And thus, being phobic about these pains, the lifter undertrains. What is needed is a rather profound shift in perception. So to say.

For the lifter who has a "misuse your body" script the problem is just the opposite. The person of this impulsive personality style will tend either to ignore the pains of training, perceiving them as meaningless, or perceive them as signals to forge ahead without caution. The problem for this lifter is the failure to differentiate the growth pains (burns and next day soreness) from the pains of injury. So, he does not perceive the sharp pain the elbow during sets of lying triceps extensions as a warning to interrupt the set immediately. Noe does he perceive the persisting sharp pain in the lower back to indicate that a discontinuation of hyperextension situps is called for. Without perceiving the different meanings of burns and next day soreness on the one hand and the sharp pains and persistent aches on the other hand, this lifter is vulnerable to injury.

When a "use you body" script is operating (the self-actualizing personality style) the lifter is most likely to perceive pain correctly. He will tend to perceive sharp pains in the muscles or joints as danger signals to be heeded immediately. Perceived as such, this lifter would not be likely to continue the exercise, "working through the pain." Likewise, this lifter will tend to perceive muscle burns and DOMS as valuable forms of feedback. This immediate feedback and delayed feedback are perceived as welcome guides in the design and execution of workout routines. It is this lifter who may make that perceptual shift, converting growing pains into pleasure

For the dedicated lifter, the pains of muscle and DOMS are the price of growth, a price that he is willing, perhaps even eager to pay. The payment, however, requires discipline. The pain of muscular growth may be taken as a metaphor for the pain of growth in other realms, as well.

I suggest that you, the reader, extend this metaphor and see in your own life how your growth in other arenas has fit the model of our mantra -- No pain, No gain.

Next: On Injury and Competition.

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