The same message is proclaimed in nearly all the fitness/lifting blogs and Facebook pages I read. If you aren’t pushing yourself past your comfort level, you may as well not bother. In other words, no pain, no gain. My indoctrination into lifting taught me that pain was a necessary component of getting stronger. That pain was the price you pay for watching the plates on the barbell grow. That it was even some sort of badge of honor to hurt every day. I just didn’t understand the difference in pain that’s normal and pain that’s not.
I’ve had a lot of time to think about pain the last three and half weeks. Mostly I’m thinking about how much I want to be free of it. It’s my constant companion, whether it’s of the the low-level “don’t forget I’m still here and you can only walk in a straight line, no sudden moves, bending or twisting allowed!” type, or the insane, “I’d give anything, you can even have my dogs, if you can just make it stop” variety. It messes with my head, making me pathetically grateful on a day when someone tells me my movement looks better. (Yeah, it looks better because I’ve learned how to hold myself and carry myself in the way least likely to set off that thunderbolt of pain that crumples me and leaves me a sobbing wreck when it hits.) This constant fear of pain has given me a different attitude about self-inflicting pain that will change my outlook when I go back to strength training.
I’m not saying I’m not going to work as hard. Even this pain doesn’t change who I am as a person and I still expect nothing less than everything from myself. But I know now that the pain I had before was not normal, not right. There’s being sore — which I like, it means I’m working. And then there’s your body telling you to chill out for a minute, to back off. I didn’t listen to my own internal alarm system. A friend tells me, and she’s right, that pain is the body’s alarm system. I guess I thought I didn’t have to listen to the alarm. I didn’t consciously think an injury would never happen to me. It’s just that it truly didn’t occur to me that it could happen — more a matter of ignorance than inflated pride. My warped sense of what level of pain was to be expected suppressed the internal complaints that something wasn’t right. When my form started to break down, I thought I could work my way out of it. I truly didn’t realize my body was trying to protect itself. If its human mind wasn’t smart enough to put on the brakes, base instinct would take over and refuse to let my back arch on a heavy squat. Instead of making me stop and ask why this was happening, I just kept trying harder. Until I couldn’t anymore.
Hindsight is 20/20, and experience is a cruel teacher. But I’ve learned my lesson, 100fold. If I ever find myself tempted to push through pain again, I’ll remember what it felt like at my last physical therapy session. Lying down, trying to do one of my exercises, tears streaming down my face as I gritted my teeth against the pain attacking my leg, unable to even do the simplest ab work and forced to take someone’s hand to help me up and limp off pitifully to a room for them to work on me to “calm down” the disc area. How is this the same person that gleefully did toes to bar last month and can pile weights on during a plank? I want to get back to that person. And when I do I will be much, much more careful.
This is not to say I’m going to be a pansy. I know how hard I’ll have to work to get strong again. But I will pay attention this time, respect my limits, and in general not act like a teenage boy who thinks he’s invincible. Pain is there for a reason. And I will know the difference in discomfort that tells me I’m working hard, and pain that tells me I’m about to be in a whole new world of hurt. And you will never, ever see me in a shirt that reads No Pain No Gain.