Some Pain, For Gains?

“No Pain, No Gain.”

This old chestnut has been ripped apart by experts who espouse their superior knowledge or qualifications to call out some primitive training methods of bodybuilders, drill sergeants, and general fitness sadists.

I have been there – advising people to be wary of jumping into high-intensity training programs when they have little experience. But have I gone too far? Some pain necessary to facilitate progress? I could have at least explained it a little better...

Many training methods or sessions that promote the NPNG method are over-the-top, providing a training stimulus that is too hard for what a beginner can tolerate. This tends to result in: a) vomit, b) never coming back, or c) both.

Pushing someone to exhaustion in their first training session is ludicrous, and highly unlikely to facilitate long-term adherence and progress. Building up to such intensity over a period of time would likely deliver better results, and leave them feeling strong when they reach those hard sessions, as opposed to incompetent and unfit.

The same goes for nutrition – overly restrictive diets, in terms of energy intake, specific macronutrients, or foods, are often counter-productive to adherence, and therefore results. The progressive approach would be a better option for most people. But this progressive approach can still feature some pain (and associated gains).

Sometimes I think we go too far the other way. We remove every aspect of discomfort or challenge from a diet or exercise plan, leaving an uninspired regime that is hard to get excited about.

Generic guidelines that desire eating less processed food, and more fruit or vegetables.

Physical activity guidelines that define walking as ‘moderate intensity exercise’ and suggest 150 minutes per week to be a good place to start.

There is no doubt that more fruit and vegetables, plus 150 minutes of walking, will improve many people’s health, but I doubt the results will maintain motivation.

The time and effort invested into incorporating these into their current regime could be better spent on higher-intensity training and more challenging progressive nutrition changes. The return on investment would be significantly larger, and faster.

As you can see, there is a dichotomy that exists between levels of intensity and results. But the underlying principle needs to be examined – is discomfort necessary for progress?

I think the answer is yes.

When body recomposition is the goal, discomfort tends to come in two forms – hunger or fatigue.

Hunger can be physical hunger from a food intake that is lower than usual. Note: this does not mean starvation, it simply means less than normal. For most people looking to lose weight, this is still an adequate intake for their nutrient requirements.

Hunger is an interesting form of discomfort, because it often combines with cravings to create a greater challenge for a client. When hungry, most people don’t desire their grilled chicken salad for lunch. Instead, they want the succulent burger and fries from across the road.

This means that when you eat the grilled chicken salad, you have effectively appeased your hunger, but not your cravings. So whilst your requirement to consume food has been met, your desire to eat a certain food has not. This can make adherence difficult, because you don't feel satisfied.

There was a TV report last week that said new research shows that when you have cravings for chocolate, your body actually wants magnesium. By eating leafy greens, nuts, and fish, this craving will be fulfilled.

But I don’t know about that. Maybe you are just craving chocolate because you are hungry and it tastes good. That makes more sense to me.

Physical fatigue is a more simple, but strong, beast. Despite the fatigue being located in burning muscles and lungs, the real battle is between the ears.

As the muscles and lungs work hard, it’s the mind that wants to stop, to stop these pains induced by everyone’s least-favourite by-product of anaerobic glycolysis, lactic acid.

Likewise, the lungs struggle to exchange sufficient oxygen for carbon dioxide, because they haven’t worked this hard for a while.

Yet neither of these will stop you. Well, more accurately, you won’t be able to push yourself to the point where they do.

Discomfort can be overcome by resilience, but it needs to be trained. People often think they can stick to any diet, if they really wanted to. With the exceptions of brides-to-be, I don’t think this is true.

Michael Gervais, an elite performance psychologist, recently said:

“The only things you can train are your mind, your body, and your craft.”

Training the mind could be an important tool to driving results. I think that discipline and resilience are the two mental muscles we need to train to improve them.

Discipline gets you to the gym, eating better meals, and sleeping more regularly.

But resilience is what keeps you going for an extra 20% on the treadmill run, or gets you that extra three reps on squats when you wanted to quit. Resilience gets you through the last 30-minutes of a training session, when you were prepared to leave after 15-minutes. Resilience tells you to wait for your next meal and avoid the piece of toast when you get home.

But it must be trained.

If you are going to exercise resilience on a program that is different to your current one, it makes sense to get results from it.

The programs that avoid discomfort will never built any resilience. Discipline might go through the roof, but unless it is accompanied by progressive overload – which requires pushing beyond current capacity – then long-term adherence is unlikely.

I think that some discomfort is inevitable during a body recomposition program. Provided the original discomfort is not overwhelming, I think that overcoming this discomfort will build resilience for future endeavours and provide the confidence that you can keep going, even when it’s hard and tempting to stop.