“No pain no gain needs a lot of explanation. That’s the trouble with clichés.”
That’s Dr. Eddie O’Connor‘s much nicer way of putting something I’ve been saying for a while: “no pain no gain” is bullshit that gets you hurt.
This message is tirelessly proclaimed from gym walls, emblazoned on clothing and plastered on “motivational” images across the internet. And I bought the hype. My indoctrination into lifting taught me that pain was necessary to get stronger. It was the cost of watching the plates on the barbell grow, even some sort of badge of honor to hurt daily. Well, that badge was my ticket into the operating room where I landed with a scalpel in my spine. I “sucked it up,” as my coach said, and worked through pain every day. “Welcome to heavy lifting,” he’d say when I’d note which part of me hurt and how badly today, and I’d press on.
My trouble was I just didn’t understand the difference in pain that’s part of training, to be expected, and pain that’s a warning signal. I talked with Eddie O’Connor, Ph.D., sport psychologist and director of the Pain Center at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital about this slogan. “What the hell is pain and what is the gain we’re talking about it?” he demands.
“Most people think ‘if it hurts it’s bad for me,’” he says, “but athletes think pain is good because you have to be tough. There’s very little education about what pain is safe and healthy, what is exercise pain, and what is injury pain.”
And then, he says, there’s “a basic truth that’s in ‘no pain no gain’. Athletes say it to each other when they’re struggling, reminding each other it’s worth it and an investment,” Dr. Eddie explains. “In a general sense that’s largely true. But it only takes one second to cross the threshold and then it’s too late.”
He’s spent his entire career working with pain, and the one thing he finds across all ages and all levels of fitness is that people struggle with understanding pain. “Eskimos have so many words for snow,” he told me. “One word for pain is not fair. There are too many things to communicate.”
I certainly didn’t understand it. I drank the no pain no gain Koolaid, taped up painful areas with kinesiotape, gritted my teeth through ice baths, swallowed fish oil like candy, and ignored the increasingly urgent warning signals my body delivered. When I lost the ability to arch my back in a squat (because it was trying to protect my spine!) I let my coach jam his knee into my back to force an arch. I literally lifted until I couldn’t lift – or do anything else, for that matter. It’s too bad I didn’t know Dr. Eddie then. He could have told me then as he told me now, “there’s nothing smart or macho or tough about working through an injury.”