Ask a Health Coach: Why Pain Doesn’t Equal Gain

gentle exerciseHi Folks! This week, Erin is navigating the age-old pain versus gain debate, providing strategies for injury-free workouts, ditching the restrictive diet mentality, and the real reason you’re not seeing results. Keep your questions coming over in the Mark’s Daily Apple Facebook group or in the comments below.

Raymond asked:

“I’m struggling to lose the last 10 pounds, mainly because I can’t be as active as I need to be. Every time I try to exercise or do strength training, I end up in pain. Part of me doesn’t want to do it because I know I’ll be miserable for a few days afterward. Any tips on exercising pain-free?”

It sounds like you’re clear on your end goal: to lose those last 10 pounds. But you’re also struggling with body pain every time you work out. I hear you Raymond. Pain is no fun. Thankfully, you don’t have to subject yourself to it in order to lose weight.

The whole no pain, no gain mentality is total BS. Punishing yourself just to reach your end goal is never a good plan. But let’s take a step back and look at your situation for a minute. You say every time you try to exercise or strength train, you end up in pain. Is that true? Is it every time? Or is it only when you do certain exercises or do them for a certain amount of time?

We often look at workouts as lifting dumbbells, taking a class, or going for a run. Or we overdo it on a consistent basis because we’re comparing our workouts to that of someone on Instagram or in our circle of friends. All of which has the ability to create undue pain. And not just physical pain.

Just remember that any form of movement has the potential to lead to weight loss, or as I prefer to say, fat loss. And a big part of how successful you’ll be starts with how you perceive your efforts.

So, I’ve got to ask. Do you look at your workouts as a chore that might finally get the scale down 10 pounds? Or is exercise something you actually enjoy doing? It’s possible that by reframing the way you see your workouts, you could actually diminish your perceived pain.

In one study, researchers saw a major distinction between spinal cord injury patients who were motivated to be physically active by positive versus negative incentives. Positive incentives were things like seeing an improvement in mood either during or after the activity and feeling satisfied with their accomplishments. Negative incentives were all motivated by fear or obligation, often causing the participants additional discomfort and pain.1

Back in the day, our ancestors stayed active by chasing antelope so they’d have dinner or they walked to the nearest spring to get fresh water. There was no selective pressure to find joy in exercise because it simply needed to be done to survive.

Thankfully, these days, we have the choice to work out in a way that resonates with us. So, if daily strength sessions bring on the worst DOMS, see how you can integrate shorter microworkouts into your day. If sprints feel like a chore, try chasing your kids around at the park. You get the picture.

My point is, changing your body often starts by changing your relationship with physical activity. And moving from the idea that pain is the only way to achieve gain, can be as close as finding joy in your workouts instead of struggle.

Anne asked:

“I’ve recently noticed that my clothes aren’t fitting the way they used to. I’ve tried restricting all sugar and carbs, and I’m thinking about getting one of those food scales. What do you recommend to get my eating under control?”

I think a lot of us are feeling the pinch of being stuck at home with a new routine and a kitchen full of snacks. You’re struggling to button your favorite pants. Your shirts are pulling slightly. Maybe you’re a little softer in the middle.

And I get it, the first response to unexpected weight gain is often to restrict the heck out of your diet. Banish all carbs! Burn all the treats! Count every calorie that comes near your mouth!

Our society tells us that weight gain is something to be ashamed of and reverse as quickly as possible. We’re told that we need to feel bad and that we should most definitely panic.

When you’re upset with your body, extreme measures can feel like the only solution. In your mind, your eating habits might feel out of control. And the only way to course-correct is to suffer — eliminating carbs, sugar, joy…

Listen, getting back on track shouldn’t equal punishing yourself. As I’ve said before, the body is an amazing, miraculous organism that deserves to be appreciated. That’s why doing anything that comes from an opposing point of view is a recipe for disaster.

Regaining control suggests a forceful wrangling of your habits. Sure, you need to have accountability, but using harsh techniques that come from a place of hate instead of love will eventually derail your relationship with your body even further. You didn’t gain the weight overnight. Therefore, a quick and unnecessarily harsh plan of attack won’t get you where you want to go.

My recommendation is to be realistic and non-dramatic. Set goals that are actually attainable for you for the long term. If you want to lose 10 pounds, start with 1 pound. If you want to stop snacking, eat more protein during the day. If you want to exercise more, get outside and walk. And most importantly watch your self-talk. If you’re unhappy with how your clothes are fitting, try not to focus on the negative. Instead, reframe your situation to see what you can be grateful for.

Rob asked:

“I eat mostly Primally and have been fit my whole life. There’s just that last little bit of extra around the middle that won’t seem to budge. I do tons of planks and crunches, but what other exercises can I do to target my mid-section?”

More doesn’t always equal more. You know what I mean Rob? Hours of planks, crunches, twists, and dead bugs might strengthen your core, but I don’t think more exercises are what you need.

If you’ve been trained in the unfortunate art of no pain, no gain, you might think your lack of results is because you’re not pushing yourself hard enough. Let me offer another perspective.

You mention that you’re “mostly” Primal. What does that look like for you? Grains here and there? A few beers on the weekends? Baked goods on holidays? Primal is designed to be a lifestyle, so you can enjoy the occasional beer or baked good. The problem arises when “occasional” turns into “regular” or it turns into an excuse to eat unhealthily whenever the mood strikes.

If you’re telling yourself you worked out today so you can indulge in a sleeve of Oreos, no amount of crunches are going reverse to the extra calories and garbage ingredients you just consumed. To really reduce midsection fat and the accompanying bloat, try cutting out all refined carbs, sugar, and alcohol for two weeks and see what happens. It’s pretty tough to rock a spare tire if you’re primarily getting your calories from protein, healthy fats, and produce.

Do you buy into the no gain, no pain mindset? Tell me how it’s worked for you — or against you in the comments below!

TAGS:  fitness

About the Author

Erin Power

Erin Power is the Coaching and Curriculum Director for Primal Health Coach Institute. She also helps her clients regain a loving and trusting relationship with their bodies—while restoring their metabolic health, so they can lose fat and gain energy—via her own private health coaching practice, eat.simple.

If you have a passion for health and wellness and a desire to help people like Erin does every day for her clients, consider becoming a certified health coach yourself. Learn the 3 simple steps to building a successful health coaching business in 6 months or less in this special info session hosted by PHCI co-founder Mark Sisson.

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6 thoughts on “Ask a Health Coach: Why Pain Doesn’t Equal Gain”

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  1. For Raymond,
    I am wondering what sort of pain you mean. If you are talking about sore muscles after training, I would advise two things. 1) Lower weights and higher reps, and 2) A different diet.
    The whole classic strength training, muscle building world seems to be structured around the idea of tearing down muscles, and rebuilding. That is one of the reasons it hurts. Lower weights and higher reps ( I would advise not doing any movement that you cannot repeat at least 10 times before failure), and NOT working to failure every time, will help. Sure, you will not build as much muscle as quickly, but you can do it without pain.
    The other part of the equation is your diet. Get rid of the sweet stuff (including anything more than 1 piece of fresh fruit a day), and get rid of the breads and pastas, and grains. Eat lots of fresh meats, with the fat on it, fish, eggs, and cheese. Accompany EVERY serving of those natural proteins with some fresh greens – salads, cooked spinach, Swiss chard, collards, broccoli, etc., with butter, olive oil, or coconut oil on them. If you are still hungry, have more of both meat and veg.
    If you eat like this, any after-workout pain will lessen.
    Why? When you are eating carbs, a hard workout leaves lactic acid in your muscles. Without the carbs, no lactic acid buildup happens. You will be more comfortable.
    Good luck.

    1. Lactic acid does not remain pooled in musculature for days. it is cleared within hours and converted to pyruvate by the liver. Lactic acid was once believed to be a cause or a factor in subsequent muscular soreness, but that hypothesis has been demonstrated to be false.

      As for weights versus reps, this is one of the problems with the way people think about strength training (which is propagated here as much as anywhere else). Viewing all repetitions as equivalent leads people to erroneous conclusions. For example, your suggestion is that someone should be able to perform 10 repetitions, but how are those repetitions are performed? Most people strength train at about a 1/1 cadence, meaning 1 second to lift and 1 second to lower. When I advise and train people, I have them move at a cadence of AT LEAST 4 seconds lifting and 4 seconds lowering, and many movements I perform are 6-10 seconds lifting and lowering. Someone performing 10 repetitions at a 1/1 cadence would spend 20 seconds total time, but I can do 4 repetitions at a 10/10 cadence (which is how I perform the barbell squat) and spend 80 seconds total time.

      There are many other variables that influence the amount of weight lifted, which are a matter of learning and executing proper form. As someone becomes better at performing a movement, the amount of weight that can be lifted will *decrease*. Proper form is the first thing to develop, as that will determine the weight to be lifted.

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