PAIN TOLERANCE: The Most Underrated Exercise Variable

As yet another year in the new millennium gets underway, it isn’t a secret that scribbled next to ‘Quit smoking’, or ‘Cut back on alcohol intake’, many a resolute soul jotted down earnest promises regarding the acquisition of fitness and health. In other words:

Get ripped.

Get a six-pack.

Pack on ‘x’ amount of lean muscle.

Lose ‘x’ amount of fat.

Complete particular endurance event.

Return to pre-pregnancy body.

Lower blood pressure.

And so on and so forth, et cetera, et cetera.

In fitness terms, an entire year is a long time; definitely sufficient enough to complete a transformation that would make even Voltron blush. However, if the modus operandi is faulty, no amount of time or trendy new exercises and equipment will yield the results you really deserve.

So where do you go for that extra edge? That one X-factor that will separate your killer new routine from the ones that do little more than cause mass boredom and a hopeless staring contest with your anything-but-broken-in running shoes.

What if there was a variable regarding training that most people never considered and ever had the option of seeing listed alongside a workout routine? Not only is this tidbit free to everyone, but also incredibly potent and if learned correctly, can morph any dull exercise into award-winning training and allow an individual to truly succeed with their physical endeavors.

This variable is Pain Tolerance, or, in other words, one’s ability to confront and digest the party platter of discomfort brought about through hard exercise.

Before I go any further, let me clarify that the type of pain in question here is healthy strain derived from proper exercise and NOT joint pain, heart pain, or any other skeletal pain that comes from improper form or poor health and could potentially be dangerous and damaging. Regardless, this distress can take many forms, from a quad-searing burnout on the leg extension to a chest-annihilating giant set on the bench press; even a screaming in the lungs from a personal best at running the mile.

There is a quote that gets tossed around a lot in cycling that simply goes, “To be a cyclist is to be a student of pain.” We may not all be cyclists or even have the slightest inclination to don a skin-tight cycling kit and ride up a few mountains, yet that is the truly great thing about pain tolerance: it applies to everything physical.

Sure, if someone has a great pain tolerance yet goes into the gym and trains like a drunken Richard Simmons, he/she is not going to automatically be on the road to reaching true results, yet when that person does in fact learn to execute their workouts with the precision of science-based routines, it is safe to say they will surpass another doing the same routines due to the fact that they have taught their mind to turn the volume down on that pesky voice in the back of your head screams, “QUIT!”

Pain is tied into working out at the most basic levels. It truly is a physiological variable, although a more scholarly exercise physiologist or personal trainer may use language that disguises pain with smug terms such as ‘lactic acid buildup’, or ’100% VO2 max’ – AKA, “THIS IS BRUTAL!”

Let’s think about some real life exercise situations. When you walk into the weight room and are looking to start off with some bicep training, you may head over to a weight rack, pick up a barbell, then begin doing focused curls. The muscle fibers in your biceps will soon contract and relax in unison with each exertion and your mind perceives this strain as a form of pain.

It hurts, burns, whatever, the main point is that when attempting many exercises, pain is going to a one of the first and most unruly people knocking at the door of your workout party with one goal – crashing it. One of the main things that sets a successful, results-based exerciser apart from one who flounders aloofly and never loses the weight or gets the strength/muscle, is what he/she does when the pain enters the room.

Are you the type of person who begins the repetitions yet drops the barbell and curses, “Damn, that is really painful, let me grab a lighter weight or cut back a few reps”, or do you confront the pain head on and say, “YEAH? SO WHAT? I’m getting this fitness no matter how much you scream and complain,” and proceed to push pain to the side and break through its limitations?

We’ve all seen shows like the Biggest Loser, where a frustrated trainer watches as client after client easily bails on a particular workout and claims they simply can’t go on. When you see something like that occurring, truly analyze what that person is basically saying: it is clear as day that they are not familiar with the physical pain needed to really make results and this unfamiliarity is too shocking for their system to cope with, causing the mind the give up.

The thing is, that is OK! It doesn’t make them a bad or lazy person, it is just that their previous way of life and absence of physicality has left them with a currently very poor ability to digest the stress and pain tied to hard training and it will take some time before they can speak that language.

It is similar to a situation where a shredded workout guru with the utmost masochistic prowess suddenly makes a resolution to become versed in Russian History, yet on their first lesson with the professor, flounders under the heavy course load and cries out at the amount of focused, relentless studying needed to master the material. It isn’t that they will never be able to give a brilliant oration on Rasputin and the Tsars, it’s just that most human beings need time to adjust to the stresses necessary for seriously excelling above the norm.

So how does one gauge his/her pain tolerance? You probably already have a good concept of this, yet here are two great ways to get a feel for it:

Leg extensions: (Even better if done at the end of leg day). Set the weight to about 50% of your one rep max and begin doing focused, squeezing-at-the-top reps, and continue this until that familiar discomfort starts growing out of your quads and attempting to smack your motivation around.

Preacher curls: Grab a similarly graded weight and begin doing concentrated reps. Preacher curls and leg extensions are great ways to gauge pain tolerance because they are completed in a fixed motion and do not require any real form. For instance, if two people were doing squats, there would be a whole myriad of factors that may throw off the delegation of work to the muscles.

With these exercises, and many others like it, you can easily become familiar with what true physical and mental exercise strain feels like, and acclimating yourself to such an extreme will do wonders for every other motion you attempt to do work with.

There have been countless cases of athletes who, according to high-tech lab tests and pages of results, shouldn’t have outperformed their counterparts yet did so because there is no number or test that can quantify a humans ability to dig deep and really desire something.

“Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” -Vince Lombardi.

That’s it for now. Remember, when trying to fulfill your fitness goals this year, try taking a little detour from browsing the newest workouts or equipment and instead focus on being comfortable with the uncomfortable – your workouts will thank you.

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