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Managing Pain Tolerance: The Gateway to Better Workouts

The goal of every workout is to push ourselves past the breaking point. Push it to the point where physically, we are not capable of doing one more rep, one more set or spend one more minute running. This is the stimulus that then causes us to improve and grow. Much more often than not though, it is not our muscles that are the sticking point, but it is our minds that cause us to stop a set or end a workout as a result of the pain we are experiencing. Reaching full physical failure is not something that most people can do. To do so, we need to greatly increase our ability to tolerate and endure the pain so we can get past that point in a set that our muscles are accustomed to and break through to new gains.

So, why is back pain or a knee injury just annoying to one person and completely debilitating to another? It has to do with each individual's unique tolerance to pain, and is shaped by some biological factors, as well as some psychological factors that we have some control over. There are two main aspects to feeling pain. First is the biological step, for example, the contraction of a muscle under load or even stepping on a pin. These sensations signal the brain that the body is experiencing trouble. The second step is how the brain processes the pain signal -- do we shrug off these sensations and continue our activities or do we stop everything and focus on what hurts? The answer to this is distinct for everyone and is influenced by several factors.

One of these factors is chronic pain. Those that are in pain chronically, be it because of a bad back, migraine headache or anything else have a far reduced ability to handle further pain as a result of the body being sensitized to pain. Feeling pain regularly makes pain receptors in the brain amplified, and are subsequently hypersensitive to any additional pain. It has been widely believed that regular exposure to painful stimuli (such as regular intense workouts) can increase pain tolerance by the theory of conditioning; however, there is evidence to support the theory that this is not true.

Another major factor affecting our ability to tolerate pain is mental. If we are in a happy, healthy mental state, we are much better equipped to tolerate pain. Anxiety, stress, depression and other mood disorders all greatly reduce our ability to tolerate pain. Studies have shown that pain tolerance is significantly reduced in subjects just after mentally stressful situation as opposed to those who were not put under stress.

So how can we increase our pain tolerance and have better workouts? These three pointers below will put you on your way:

  • Relax before the gym: It is best to achieve a calm and relaxed mood before you subject yourself to pain at the gym. Doing so will calm your brain and allow the pain receptors to “cool down” before you hit them hard again.

  • Use a training partner: A study by the journal of Psychosomatic Medicine studied the effects of having individuals test their pain tolerance while accompanied by another participant. Their results revealed that the participants who performed the tasks in pairs had a much higher pain tolerance than those who performed the tasks alone, regardless of whether they were paired with a friend or stranger. This demonstrates that going through pain with someone, reduces perceived pain. Having a workout partner to support you during sets will yield this same effect and can allow you to get more reps or stay on the treadmill for longer in most cases.

  • Stay calm between sets: Getting too pumped and anxious for the next set can have the same effect as showing up to the gym stressed out. It’s important to take a mental break as well as a physical break in between sets. This is something that you can learn over time. Any experienced lifter has learned the ability to have a highly intense set, then hold a calm conversation between sets then have another intense set. It’s just about turning it on when it’s needed and off when it’s not. It’s a skill that takes practice.

Working out is hard, it hurts, and that’s why not everyone can do it. Most people simply cannot tolerate the pain. It is a rare group that can and an even rarer group that masters the mental aspect of training and can truly get the most out of their bodies. Our individual ability to tolerate the pain and discomfort we feel in the gym will be a huge factor in our success.

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