Good pain versus bad pain

Good pain versus bad pain

I recently read this article on T Nation and, while I could write a post based on the whole article itself (some good, some bad), I wanted to focus on this quote – which the author highlighted as the most important point in the article:

The lifter that can endure the most pain will be the most successful.

Aside from the twice-daily, non-stop training discussed in the article, I think the above quote is a dangerous idea indeed. The idea is not only related to this article either – how many times have you heard someone push through a workout quoting the statement ‘no pain, no gain’? By all means, it is important to push through pain barriers to become a better and stronger lifter, but not if it leads to injury.

I often feel like quitting an exercise mid-set because it hurts – I struggle to breathe, the weight feels like it’s crushing me, and I wonder if I’m going to make it through my next rep. There was a point when I did give in to that voice telling me to stop, and I was left with both mental and physical weakness to show for it. It was only when I taught myself to shut the hell up and get on with it – without thinking about how much it was going to hurt or how likely I was to fail – that I became a better athlete.

During events training my grip and back are often fatigued, I’m on the verge of throwing up and I feel exhausted. But I push through it, as I know it is just one hour of feeling uncomfortable during my whole week. My competition aren’t sitting around whinging, so I can’t let them get ahead of me.

It is common that when a client first trains with me, they will hit new PRs – simply because they are not used to pushing past that pain barrier to discover what they are truly capable of.

I would categorise this as ‘discomfort’. It is not a sharp or deep pain, but rather an uncomfortable sensation. Most of us are conditioned to avoid pain, so we never truly push ourselves beyond this point.

What I don’t think you should ever push through is true pain. Listen to your body and take note – there is a difference between needing to sit down for a minute and gain some extra energy for your next set, and letting your form collapse because you are completely drained.

no pain no gain

Whenever I feel true pain, I stop my session. Recently my hips have been quite tight and painful, which has forced me to stop certain exercises (squats, lunges, deadlifts) mid-workout. When things don’t feel quite right, I know forcing myself through it will only make things worse. When I feel pain, I stop immediately or change exercises.

My lower back only feels sore after deadlifts during competitions and sometimes if I’ve attempted a new max. Last week, it started hurting after about five sets. Going against my better judgement, I did three more sets. And I paid for it. My back was in agony the next day, and my deadlifts this week felt awful. Although it wasn’t a sharp or shooting pain, it was sudden and unusual. I should have recognised that the pain was a sign of incorrect technique, and given it a rest. Lesson learnt.

Ask yourself the following questions before you push through any pain:

  • Have you felt any sharp, stabbing-like pain? Was there an associated feeling of popping or clicking? If so, stop lifting immediately and don’t return to the gym until it feels 100% better – even if that’s a week or two later. You should never feel any sudden pains, numbness or tingling.
  • Did the pain suddenly appear? “Good” pain tends to gradually build up. You will (hopefully!) start your workout fresh as a daisy, but feel more and more fatigued as you go along. This is when your brain will chime in and tell you to quit. On the other hand, if you feel completely fine and then suddenly experience an intense pain, it is usually a symptom of “bad” pain.
  • Is your pain generalised or localised? My posterior chain often starts cramping during exercises like sled pushes and drags. It’s not a localised pain as it runs all the way from my glutes to my ankles, and I know it will disappear as soon as I finish the session. However, when I hurt my shoulder last year, it was a localised pain. I had damaged the muscle and needed complete rest. My physio told me it was a small tear and would heal within eight weeks if I avoided all forms of pressing. Unfortunately, I had two competitions coming up so could not afford to rest completely. Consequently, what should have been a minor injury took six months to heal. Any kind of localised pain, especially one that is in your joints or bones, is bad.

Too much pressing hurt my shoulder

  • Are you just tired? As you become fatigued during a workout, your head will start playing tricks on you. It may try to convince you to skip a rep, a set or even an entire exercise because you don’t have the energy. Don’t listen to this voice. If you are genuinely tired, reduce the weight slightly to prevent injury and focus on technique.
  • Is it just delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)? Many people hate to feel sore the day or two following a hard workout. They take it as a sign that they have pushed too hard or hurt themselves. DOMS can sometimes seem crippling but, provided you’re not feeling it in your joints, it’s completely safe and normal for the pain to spread out over a large area and for the muscles to be tender to touch
  • Is pushing through the pain going to make you a better athlete? For those of us that compete in strength or endurance events, it’s easy to feel panicked when considering the looming competition, but don’t feel like you need to complete every single workout as planned. Do you think it makes more sense to push through a mediocre workout and injure yourself right before competition day, or take the day off and come back fully recovered for a good pre-comp session?

If you feel serious pain during your workout, seek advice from a good trainer as it usually means your technique is incorrect or you are structuring your workouts incorrectly (i.e. too heavy too soon). If you think you have been injured, see a doctor. Pushing through pain and ignoring your body in order to become a more successful lifter is a terrible idea.

Do you ever push through “good” pain? Have you ever injured yourself by pushing through pain?

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