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Fairytales from the Gym: No pain, no gain.

Right. Next gym myth to dispel!

This one was later on my list, but it came up in a conversation recently so I decided to go for it now. I was discussing with fellow bellydance instructors, an issue where class participants had stated that because they weren't sore after their dance class, it didn't feel "like a proper workout". Now, whether the class actually was challenging those individuals' fitness isn't something I could comment on, but I find this idea that a "real" workout hurts interesting and I want to explore it.

Where did we get this idea that exercise is painful?

What do we even mean by pain?

What are we doing to ourselves when we submit to this narrative?




I'm pretty down with the pain thing. I have Ehlers Danlos Syndrome which means that I have chronic pain in most of my joints. Oddly enough the one thing that actually relieves my pain (another symptom is resistance to pain relief drugs, thanks nature)  is the post-exercise endorphin rush - which is why you will see me smashing out the elliptical on a regular basis.

I'm also a doula, and one of the things I often talk to doula clients, and prenatal yoga clients, is that while labour will be uncomfortable, it is not the pain of illness or damage, but the pain that comes when a muscle (in this case the uterus) is working really hard and just like a marathon runner takes that sensation and rides it, uninhibited by it, that's how they will manage their labour.

What I'm getting at is that there is pain you should definitely not be feeling, and pain that is OK, under the right circumstances.


The wrong kind of pain.


If you experience pain in your joints when you are exercising, you need to stop and at least get someone (like a Personal Trainer...) to check your form in that exercise. If it's not an obvious form issue, you need to leave that exercise until you can get checked out by your doctor or physiotherapist. Joint pain is not something you can keep mashing through in the hope that you will get fitter and it will go away, it won't.

If you experience a sudden, sharp pain anywhere, you need to stop and work out what is causing it. That's not healthy or OK.

If your workout leaves you afterwards with pain in a joint, your back or disproportionately in a particular muscle group, again that's not right, you need to get it checked out.

The most common reason for any of these is bad form, if your posture is incorrect, your joints misaligned, you will put stress on your body that causes damage. This is why it's best to work out with a trainer or instructor who will keep an eye on you and give corrections. Plan balanced workouts and be aware of your form in all exercises. Don't lift too heavy, better to get full, smooth reps in good form than go too heavy and fail on your form.

The pain you might expect.


Pain during exercise is one thing, but a lot of people are talking about pain after exercise. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is pain in the muscles, usually 12-72 hours after exercise. It's common, and not something to really worry about if you are experiencing soreness as opposed to crippling pain. If you can't walk for 2 days after your workout however, something is wrong - probably with your workout.


What causes DOMS?


The exact mechanics of DOMS are unclear, possibly because there are several factors at play, but we do know some things that make it worse and some things we can do to prevent or alleviate it.

DOMS is definitely far worse when we try something new. Working muscles in a way that they are not used to will make them sore, undoubtedly. So will working muscles harder than they are used to, like suddenly doubling your lift weights. DOMS also seems to be linked to eccentric contraction, that's when the muscle is working and lengthening at the same time, like on the lowering part of a chin up.

When we train muscles, we damage them. That is inevitable. It's how your body knows how to adapt. A new stress on your muscle (or bone, because bone works in the same way) causes very minor damage to the tissue, when that damage is repaired, the muscle is slightly upgraded, to cope with the new stress. If there is no stress, then the muscles are downgraded, to save the energy needed to maintain them - this is why we say "use it or lose it". It's also why muscle mass fiends talk about being "ripped", deliberately causing damage to the muscle to develop inflammation, water retention etc is part of hypertropy training for those who are all about the size.

That damage causes inflammation and that would certainly account for some of the soreness, stiffness and heat that you see in severe DOMS. It's not the whole story, but it's enough for now.


Preventing DOMS


It's not an exact science, but here's some things that tend to help prevent or relieve DOMS

  • Introduce new exercises gradually, treat a new exercise almost like a new program, remember you are a beginner at it, even if you are an expert at the rest of your fitness.
  • Be aware that negative and forced reps are going to cause more DOMS, so ration them in your plan.
  • Use your rest intervals in your workout properly, to avoid lactate build up that further damages muscles. You need to rest for 30-60 seconds between moderate weight sets, 1-2 minutes between heavy sets.
  • Get a good night's sleep after your workout, you do your best healing in your sleep.
  • Use your rest days for rest. That's when your muscles are repairing, so don't go doing them more damage. I'm going to write about rest days in another post soon....
  • But do move on your rest days, I personally think that getting some blood (nutrients) and warmth into tired, damaged muscles can be really helpful, but I'm talking a moderate walk or a gentle swim.
  • Warm up and cool down properly, every exercise session.
  • Stretch out every muscle you have trained - resistance training shortens muscles which will affect your posture and make you feel stiff, maintenance stretching is not optional, it's a key part of your workout.
  • Foam roll or warm and stretch your muscles on your rest days too.
  • Eat a balanced meal within a couple of hours of your workout. You need protein to provide the materials for muscle repair and carbs to restock your muscle cells' glycogen stores.

The comfort habit.


We live in a culture of comfortable habits. We are surrounded by technology designed to make everything easier, so sometimes, when we are challenged, it surprises us. It's a lot like when a toddler starts being told "no" after that lovely stage as an infant where all their needs and desires are met. Suddenly mum says "no, you can't eat that other kid's biscuit" and they lie on the floor and scream like they are being tortured because after the lovely bubble of babyhood that is so horribly unfair.

Did I just call you a massive baby for complaining that your workout was uncomfortable? Noooo, I'd never do that.

My point is that often, when we are working out, and we feel the discomfort in our muscles because they are working hard, we interpret that as pain. We misunderstand the message our body is telling us. It's not saying "I'm getting seriously damaged, you need to stop", it's saying "this is encroaching on my limits, I'm working hard... and I'm changing, I'm getting stronger. Next time, I'll be a boss at this"

We need to tune into our bodies and learn to recognise the difference. We need to find ways to handle things when it gets tough. That takes stamina, grit, determination. But focusing on the sensation ("no pain no gain") doesn't really help - it just makes it bigger until it fills your head. Focus on your goals, remember why you are doing it.

"You can tolerate any "how" if you have a "why"" Jillian Michaels.

Think about how great you will feel when you have done it, when you achieved something you didn't think you could. When you thought about quitting, but didn't. That's the rush, the drug that keeps exercise junkies going back to it.

People do this sort of thing for "fun"
So you can probably get to the end of that HIIT class.

So what have we learned?


Firstly, there are 3 kinds of "pain" you might encounter when working out:
  • Injury pain
  • Discomfort
  • DOMS
Injury pain is your body telling you there is something wrong, you need to stop and correct it. Discomfort is a normal part of challenging your body and making progress towards real change, learn to ride it. DOMS is a sometimes inevitable side effect, but plan to avoid it so that it doesn't end up getting in the way of your next training session or generally making your life unpleasant.

Remember, do the fitness that makes you feel good. That might be while you are doing it, or afterwards, but don't try and tell yourself that fitness has to be horrible torture, it doesn't, and that attitude is what stops people from doing activities they love and staying healthy.

If you feel like you could do with a hand programming suitable workouts for yourself, roll on over to my PT website and sign up for online training, or exercise programming - I'd love to help you meet your goals in ways that feel good and are good for your individual body.

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