Did you ever wake up in the morning feeling aches and soreness from the previous day's workout? It's a good example of a specific type of pain. The good news is that it's short-lived. The bad news is that it's still uncomfortable.
When pain is present the body has no choice but to respond to it. Let's say it shows up in the shoulder. It could be a rotator cuff issue, tendonitis, arthritis, or bursitis, etc. Not to mention that there are differences between pain on the left side and right side of the body, and can be an indication of many different ailments. But the bottom line is this. When pain is present, the body inhibits force production, plain and simple. Basically what that means is that you are inherently physically weak when ever and where ever pain is present.
Did you ever twist your ankle? If you did, you know right away that even though you can walk, you walk differently. Do you put all of your weight on the foot? Do you swing your hip a little differently? The pain causes everything to shift and as a result you use some muscles less and overload others in compensation.
Should you train when pain is present?
I'm not going to say no definitively, because there are times when it is necessary. For example, when I had medial meniscus surgery on my left knee six years ago I had to end a fair amount of pain through the rigors of physical therapy. But note that this was post-surgery and medically supervised by a physical therapist. (Still hurt like hell by the way.)
Getting back to the shoulder – – let's say that your shoulder hurts when you attempt push ups. You can do a couple of push ups, but not nearly as many as you used to. You feel like you could do more push ups if the pain was not as severe. It is literally the pain in your shoulder that is causing you to stop short. You my friend are training with pain and that is where I draw the line.
However, when it comes to building bigger muscles and changing your body, you need to put your muscles through a certain degree of pain and discomfort. If you do not push them beyond what they can usually do, there's no need for them to change because they do not have to adapt to the added stress. Increasing muscle size will not happen until you seize the courage and mental discipline to immerse yourself in a certain amount of pain and discomfort.
The old adage of “no-pain, no-gain” applies here 100%. That saying refers to the process of pushing your muscles hard to the point where lactic acid buildup from the burning of ATP (sugar) causes momentary muscle failure (MMF). That is part of hypertrophy training (muscle-building) and totally different from nagging shoulder pain or an ankle sprain. Yet many people feel that if they do not push through all kinds of pain, they are not training hard enough.
A Fresh Approach
When I assess a new client and pain shows up, I will not train them period. Rather, I refer them to a medical professional. Sometimes it might be a Physical Therapist, a Chiropractor, or even an Orthopedist. They need to be free from pain and inflammation before they can start or resume training.
The right medical clinician will assess the situation and apply treatment that will reduce inflammation and treat pain. I work closely with experts that use modalities like ART (Active Release Technique) and Graston Technique. But there are many different types of therapies, but the most important thing is to seek medical assistance and get treatment.
I hope that you now have a better understanding of the type of pain that will require you to seek a medical professional's opinion and treatment. It just does not make sense to train when pain is present. Not only are you inherently weaker from the pain, but by trying to “work around” pain in one area of the body you are potentially creating muscle imbalance in other areas and extremely making a bad situation worse.
Working with a medical clinician will take you to the point where you are pain-free. Once done, he will release you from his care. This is where our skill sets complement each other. After your treatment is over and you are pain-free, there is often a need for one-on-one personal training so that the underlying cause, typically muscle imbalance and dysfunctional movement does not put you back in a pain cycle.
From Pain-Free to Strong
This whole process is like tending a garden. First you have to prepare the soil. Then you have to plant seeds. Then there is the process of tending your garden to keep it free of weeds and pests so that absolutely it will yield fruit and vegetables.
Your personal training program will begin with soft tissue methods like foam rolling, stretching, and mobility work to increase the range of motion and improve movement patterns. Then you will progress into “stabilization training” which is a fancy term for teaching your body to be able to maintain control while moving. Ultimately you will become strong and balanced so that you can get back into the game of life performing at optimum levels.
It takes a little time and patience, just like gardening. Most people just want to find a quick fix, but unfortunately the human body does not work that way. Some things just take time.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu
That phrase from Lao Tzu, author of the Dao de Ching “The Way”, is centuries old and it holds wisdom that marks time. Take this advice and all you have to do is place one foot in front of the other and taking one step at a time in the direction of your goals. The hardest part is taking that first step!