Pain Is Just Weakness Escaping The Body? Bullshit!
No pain, no gain! That’s what I believed and therefore that’s how I lived. Pain was a big part of my life for a long time.
I joined a gym when I was 13 years old, motivated by deep insecurity and crippling shyness. I got my first training injury the same year. It wouldn’t be the last! Between a seemingly endless parade of muscle tears, strains and sprains, and the fact that I always got huge levels of DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) after workouts, I was perpetually in some kind of workout-induced pain.
Things got worse as the injuries piled up over the years – throw in my bad back, mild arthritis in my hands and feet from my martial arts days, plus a dental implant that impinges on a nerve, and you’ve got a tasty recipe for hurt. Not shattering agony or anything that dramatic, but enough that pain was a constant and annoying companion. One I got used to living with because I thought I had to.
When I first got to know my wife Sarah back in 2014, I brushed aside my ongoing pain with an air of calculated machismo. “Oh I’m in pain all the time but it doesn’t stop me!” was my only take on the subject.
There’s a whole lot of figurative chest beating, manly grunting and posturing in that statement, so much so that I’m amazed that she didn’t run away screaming.
What an idiot I was. These days, I wonder what kind of mental malfunction allows someone to take pride in suffering?
Anyway, I thought I knew something about pain. Then in late 2015, my back finally went bang after decades of scoliosis-driven problems, dumb training, and ongoing disk degeneration. This is when I really got to know pain. Instead of merely being sore, I got to experience the kind of agony that intravenous morphine eases but doesn’t come close to taking away. That wasn’t much fun.
The Depths Of Insanity
At some level however, I still thought that pain was a necessary part of the process of being me.
I train, therefore I hurt. Right?
My thought process was simple. At some point, I’d go back to gym and would just carry on as before…the bad pain would fade and the good pain would settle back in.
Allow me to clarify – I was on a massive amount of pain killers, wearing a brace, unable to walk without a walker, and couldn’t survive without help, but I was hassling my physical therapist to allow me to go to gym and do a few sets of machine chest press “…because it would be good for me… help tighten my core… ease the pain…”.
Bullshit! In truth, I desperately wanted to regain some lost muscle so I didn’t have to be the skinny guy I’d always been terrified of being. At this point, I’d lost around 30lbs, so I was cringing.
Carrying muscle was much more important to me than being healthy or even recovering but do you think I could see that? Not a chance. The social constructs I believed in were just too strong. I had a vision of what being a man was all about, and I knew what I needed to look like in this world.
And that vision was so powerful.
Later in the rehab process, when I could still hardly walk and was using a crutch to get around, I’d go to gym “to do my rehab exercises”. While I was there, I’d sneak in some machine press, machine dips etc. or anything I could that would help me gain back the muscle I’d lost, even if it set back my recovery. How deep was my cognitive dissonance. Apparently as deep as it gets!
While I was working on my appallingly slow rehabilitation, I started paying attention to a guy named Naudi Aguilar, who I’d somehow found on Facebook. For anyone who doesn’t know him, he’s a bio-mechanical movement specialist and runs Functional Patterns in Seattle.
I was lucky enough to get to work one-on- one with Naudi, and speaking frankly, he saved my life. But that’s a different story, which has been covered before and probably will be again, so let’s get back to what he taught me about pain before I’d even met him. LISTEN TO MY STORY HERE
Basically, Naudi believes that much of what the fitness industry promotes doesn’t lead to fitness but rather to dysfunction. Instead of making human beings more functional by respecting how we evolved, working out can actually make us less functional.
After a bit of reflection, I made the connection and understood the “training can equal dysfunction” concept. Hell why wouldn’t I understand it? I was seriously dysfunctional. Even five months into my recovery, I moved like a 95-year- old man and my best friends were still the stacked painkillers and muscle relaxants I chowed down 18 hours a day.
Being honest with myself, I recognized that I’d tried to disguise weakness and insecurity for more than three decades. I actually started lifting casually when I was 10 years old, so that makes nearly 40 years at gym, and for what? All that time, sweat, effort and pain had helped to break me down instead of building me up, exactly as Naudi was theorizing – this became obvious, even to me.
But it was only when I listened to a YouTube interview with Naudi that I started to grasp something significant. He spoke about not being in pain… about not having to deal with pain at all, any pain.
Why? Because he trains to not only avoid any future physical problems, but also to erase the ones he already has. There’s no ego involved, just a clear and logical approach designed to make his body function better than it used to, and to keep it that way. He doesn’t train to be “big” or “strong” or any of the other mindless and superficial reasons often repeated by bodybuilders and strength-junkies.
That makes a lot of sense, and it seems a simple enough approach to fitness but my reaction was a slightly stunned “WTF is he talking about?”
Why did this concept totally blow my mind?
Because it’s the exact opposite of the way I’d always operated. I trained to get big. Nothing else mattered. Not strength (although it was a factor), not health, not functionality, not even standing straight, and certainly, not being pain-free.
I’d followed the shallowest and most meaningless goals, and now I was paying the price.
Being a physical wreck after my injury was a blessing because it helped me begin to address the ego-based inadequacies that fueled my dysfunctional behavior. After a lifetime spent just doing the same thing and expecting different results, something clicked and I started thinking in terms of longevity, sustainability and remaining pain-free.
Time To Engage My Brain
I began to ask myself scary but important questions. For example, “Is heavy military press functional”?
Of course it is assuming the goals are to repeatedly press a barbell over my head, to have big deltoids, and to pretend not to feel inadequate but that’s all! Does heavy military press help my day-to- day ability to walk, to move without pain, to function as a human being? No, of course not.
Furthermore, would it put my damaged spine under unnecessary pressure? Yes, no doubt about it.
So to hell with that exercise! And to hell with all the other exercises I’d been doing like a robot for so long.
I resolved to ask myself these two questions before doing any fitness or rehabilitation work:
“Is this making me more functional or not? If not, why am I doing it?”
I’ve realized that I can do hundreds of hours of rehab, and I can focus on repairing and building up what’s been damaged, but I’m sabotaging my recovery and my long-term health if I persist in stupid, outdated practices that do nothing but stroke my insecurities.
Happy days, I figured it all out and lived happily ever after right?
Wrong! The ingrained habits and patterns of a lifetime don’t necessarily vanish overnight, even in the face of indisputable evidence that the behavior is destructive – I had recently been completely unable to walk! Hello?? Surely that was enough?
Apparently not. I may have given up lifting, or going to gym, but it took months of introspection and processing to finally put all that old thinking behind me.
For far too long, I treated every solo-FP session as an intense workout instead of rehabilitation. I was trying to use extra resistance, adding more sets and reps, and pushing harder each time – just like the meathead I’d always been.
This was in spite of having gone through all those sessions in Seattle with Naudi where we’d do two or three reps of a movement and then stop because we’d done exactly what we needed to do – any more was superfluous. There was no ego in the FP studio, but when I left, I still dragged plenty of it around with me.
I knew I was pushing too hard, losing form, possibly setting myself up for more problems, or even badly hurting my back again. But so much of who I was, wanted to be big that I couldn’t let it go.
But eventually, I did.
It didn’t happen in a burst of light and inspiration. Things slowly changed as my thinking evolved, and I evolved along with it. My ego became less of a factor, and I started to actually apply my intellect at long last. The more I did that, the easier it became to think instead of just acting.
It took far longer than it should have but these days, I do my FP sessions without my ego. If I do three reps with the lightest resistance band, and that’s all I need to do, then that’s it, job done, move on. If the 10lb kettle-bell is the right weight for a movement, then that’s what I’ll use, and the 15lb will get used when it’s needed.
Building big muscles is the last thing on my mind, but building a functional, sustainable body and mind is my absolute priority.
This shift in thinking and behavior has been liberating to say the least.
Knowing that I’m contributing to my well-being instead of my self-destruction is an amazing feeling. As is not being in pain, especially the self-inflicted kind. I’ve been lucky enough to change, to be forced to change in fact. But not everyone gets that kind of luck. If you’re the source of your pain like I was, believe me when I say it’s not worth it. It really isn’t.
If you cause yourself pain or discomfort in order to look a certain way, then you need to ask yourself some scary questions.
There are alternatives to being a drone locked into the social constructs that have been forced upon you all your life. I was a mindless drone, but I got better. If I can, anyone can….
Tribe of Change Blogger
Ashley Kramer is a freelance writer, minimalist, and traveler, not necessarily in that order. He writes about health and fitness, society, and technology. And strangely enough, he also writes books for children.