Should I train through pain?

Most of us sports and fitness enthusiasts have trained through pain. Usually with thoughts like “I can’t lose my progress. I have to keep training to lift heavier, compete in the competition, lose weight, win the game, etc. I can ignore the pain and keep training.” Unfortunately, you can’t override your nervous system and tissue healing system.

Think you can ignore your pain and force your muscles to work? Think again. It’s the same as asking your heart not to beat- you can’t control it. When you have pain in an area, your nervous system will change your ability to use your muscles. Some muscles will get shut down, some will get extra activated. The muscles’ ability to control the movement of your joint will decrease. This will just potentially worsen the original injury.

The areas of your brain that control the painful body part literally change immediately when you have an injury. The longer you keep pain in an area, the more changes you will have to your brain and the nerves that go between your muscles and brain. You think you are making progress by training through pain, but really you are just making longer lasting changes to your nervous system that become more difficult to change over time.

Check out the picture of the brains above. Your brain has specific areas that correspond to specific parts of your body. On the left is a healthy brain, on the right a brain with face pain. See how the face gets huge and starts taking over other parts of the brain? Now everything is all mixed up. Something similar happens every time we have pain in an area of our body. The longer we keep pain there, the more mixed up things get. So address your pain as soon as you have it, unless you like having your brain all scrambled up like an egg.

Your soft tissues like tendons also decrease in health when you continue to aggravate them. See the picture on the left of a normal tendon and an irritated tendon with tendinitis? Don’t worry about what all those labeled things are. Just know that these changes are bad, painful and cause the tendon to be unhealthy. Why do you want a healthy tendon? Because unhealthy tendons can tear! Now you are having surgery. Not fun. Also healthy tendons make you stronger because your tendon connects your muscle to the bone. Want a strong muscle with your weak, abused tendon? Not gonna happen.

So I should never have pain when I workout?

No, that’s not true either. Most of the time (unless it’s a broken bone or a completely torn tissue) the only way to heal an area is to load it APPROPRIATELY. You can take time off and rest, but if that tissue already has some changes to it (probably does) then the only way to make that tissue stronger is to LOAD IT. Does a muscle get strong and healthy by resting it? Can you make a muscle strong by massaging it? No! And the same is true of tendons, ligaments and joints. Load stimulates your body to make things stronger.

How do I know how much pain is ok?

When working with a nagging pain where you know there is nothing severely torn or fractured, these guidelines can be helpful. The pain is ok if:

  • The pain is not greater than 3-5 on a 0-10 scale while performing a movement
  • The pain does not get worse as you continue the movement
  • After the movement/exercise/workout/training session, you may have increased pain but it is back to normal within 24 hours or 48 hours max.
  • Over weeks of training, your pain is gradually getting better

I don’t care if it hurts, I’m going to do it anyways

Ok, ok but why? Are you a professional or Olympic athlete? Probably not! So my fellow recreational athletes, what is that makes you do that extra-heavy deadlift, run the 10 miles, or do one hundred pull-ups even though it hurts? What is it that stops you from putting a lighter weight on the bar or scaling down your movements? Taking a day off to stretch and recover? I can tell you from my personal experience, it has been wanting to keep up with other people and prove to myself and my gym mates that I can do it. But every time I have realized that it wasn’t worth it. Being unable to sleep due to shoulder pain. Being unable to perform overhead lifting for 2 weeks. Or being unable to sit due to back pain. Each time I do something like that, I get a little smarter- I hope!

I hope this article has helped you to understand the consequences of pain and how to work with it to move forward, not backward! Don’t worry what other people think. They don’t have to live in your body and they are not going to take care of you if you end up with a serious injury or problem. Remember that training smarter is going to take you farther. It may not feel like it today, but in the long run it will pay off!