Bodybuilding and Pain
If you lift weights on a regular basis, you already know that pain can be a very real part of the experience. In order to realize gains, you must maintain a high degree of intensity throughout, maximizing each and every lift.
To experience the highly desired “pump”, moments of discomfort will be a natural consequence. Perhaps this is why so many of us grunt and shout while executing a rep. It’s how we cope.
Most coaches and trainers will tell you it’s important to pay attention to pain.
In truth, not all discomfort is a bad thing. For example, a dull, burning sensation in the abdomen while doing crunches is probably fine because you are stretching and tightening the abdominal walls.
On the other hand, if you feel a sharp, shooting pain in the joints, like the elbows, shoulders or knees, you need to immediately stop what you are doing. These sensations can be a sign of an injury and may cause damage to the connective tissue or ligaments.
With all of that said, the question for many weightlifters becomes: How can I cope with non-injury related pain and get the most out of my workouts?
The answer comes to us from the world of mindfulness; a $10.00 term used to describe the dynamic where the focus of your awareness is on the here and now.
What follows are 7 mindful ways to cope with pain for bodybuilders and avid gymgoers. Some of these points may seem like common sense. Others might strike you as silly.
Read them all to get the most from the experience.
1. Imaginative Inattention
This approach involves ignoring the discomfort by evoking images that are incompatible with the pain experience. An example might be projecting your imagination towards something scenic, like the beach or swimming in the crystal blue waters of Puerto Rico.
The idea is to think about something pleasurable so that the active mind moves its awareness away from your working muscles.
2. Transformational Presence
This technique comes right out of the book of Zen. Here, you simply acknowledge the presence of pain but mentally distance its impact on your lifts.
An example might be saying to yourself, “I know that I am feeling safe pain right now, but I’ve experienced this sensation before – and I am pushing through.”
In this way, you have removed discomfort as a barrier and transformed its presence into a simple thought. To be sure, the technique described here takes practice.
3. Become a Superhero
At its core, this hack basically asks that you have an open mind and pretend to be a superhero. Similar to the transformational presence technique, you acknowledge pain’s presence, but this time put it into a different context.
For example, you may picture yourself as Superman, punching through a brick wall as you execute the rep. Another example might be using your mind’s eye to pretend you are The Hulk, moving a heavy object around from point to point.
4. External Attention Diversion
The key to this approach is to use external objects as a focus of attention. Ideally, you’ll center your awareness on something that has zero to do with the exercise you are attending to.
Examples include looking at yourself in the mirror, studying the way a piece of equipment is built or peering out a window.
Incidentally, did you know that one of the reasons most gyms have lots of mirrors is to help people just like you divert attention away from their pain? Yep, it’s absolutely true.
5. Internal Attention Diversion
This approach is a variation of the technique described above but involves focusing your attention inward. The idea is to engage in a mental activity that absorbs your concentration.
Practical examples include counting backward from 100 by increments of 5 or imagining a redesign of your bedroom with new paint and furniture.
Any mental activity that helps to distract from the safe pain you are experiencing will be helpful.
6. Mindful Somatization
A frequently used technique used by many bodybuilders is somatization. That’s a fancy name given to the approach of focusing on the part of the body experiencing an intense workout but in a detached way.
Let’s say you are doing a bicep curl. During the upward execution of the lift, you would analyze the physical sensations of the arm and shoulder. In this way, it is like a robot who is aware of something happening internally but not letting it cause a shutdown.
In practical terms, you might think to yourself, “I am aware that I’m curling my biceps and tightening at the peak. My connective tissues and bones make this all possible. Discomfort is to be expected.”
7. Active Imagination
The famous Swiss psychologist Carl Jung is credited with coining the term active imagination. While there are many definitions of this construct, it’s really all about combining the mind and spirit.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say you are working out your chest and really struggling. To help get through the experience, you might imagine Zeus zapping you with a bolt of energy.
Conversely, you might conjure up mental imagery of your spirit animal sitting nearby, encouraging you to work past the pain and finish the lift.
Yes, this hack is “out there” and may even sound a bit crazy. But Jung’s active imagination concept wasn’t designed to make sense. Instead, it is a theory of explanation that is based on psycho-spiritualism.
As shared at the start of this piece, pain is a natural consequence when lifting weights. If what you are feeling is sharp or shooting in nature, stop the exercise pronto.
But if the sensation you are experiencing is familiar, usually in the form of a warm burn, it’s probably OK to keep going. Obviously, if in doubt, err on the side of caution and cease doing the exercise.
Personally, I’ve always detested the “No Pain – No Gain” mantra. It’s just way too misleading – don’t you think?
If you are interested in learning more about bodybuilding and mindful approaches to lifting, there is a great book I’d like to recommend called Bodybuilding Passion by Lovate. See Amazon for price.
Hopefully, the tips I’ve shared here will help you to get your muscle on using natural approaches for dealing with pain. Have an awesome workout!