A Practical Approach To “No Pain, No Gain”

Many individuals who integrate training as part of their lifestyle will at some stage in their training lifetime, sustain an injury or train whilst in pain. Whether it’s in the gym or on the field, many athletes pose the question of whether to take time off or to continue training. This post will aim to address the impact of injury and in particular pain, on the body’s performance and ways to combat this issue when faced.

 the activity of agonist muscles is often reduced by pain, even when this does not arise from the muscle itself. Furthermore, pain causes small increases in the level of activity of the antagonist. As a consequence of these changes, force production and the range and velocity of movement of the affected body part are often reduced.”

Lund et al 1991

Lund et al’s article on the pain adaption model, highlights the general changes in muscle function when associated with pain. It is shown to cause a reduction in the intensity of muscle contractions and leads to antagonistic or “opposite” muscle groups to increase activity. This means that the specific muscle targeted during painful training, are worked sub optimally and non-targeted muscle groups have a degree of unwanted muscle involvement that can limit the effect of peak training and ultimately performance.

An article by Graven Nielsen and associates in 1997 also suggest the same idea. Their study showed that pain reduces the maximal isometric muscle torque of the knee extensor muscles by an average of 20%.  Furthermore submaximal isometric contractions (80% of max) showed a significant reduction in muscular endurance time.

This would lead us to believe that whether from muscular or non-muscular origin, pain will lead to a reduction in the ability of muscle contractions at both maximal and submaximal levels.

Another study by Graven Nielsen and associates in 2002, reinforced the same idea and found that increased antagonistic/opposite muscle group activity could be a functional adaptation of muscle co-ordination and the body’s automatic reaction to  limit painful movements of the agonists .

So whether you’re an individual who performs in a sport, which involves maximal muscle output such as powerlifting or weightlifting, or whether you’re a cyclist or runner that is involved in submaximal muscle activity’ pain is a huge detriment to muscular and athletic performance.

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So what should I do?

Many individuals who take complete time off training can respond well symptomatically, however once returning to training, similar symptoms may return, especially if the root of the cause is not addressed. Furthermore the absence of training can lead to significant changes in the muscular system, noticed especially on return. A study by Berg et al observed a reduction of 25-30% maximum voluntary isometric and knee extensor cross-section size showed a decrease of 14% following 6 weeks of rest. So is it really worth taking complete time off to treat an injury, especially when muscle function and performance is hampered on return?

A secondary (and more ideal) option is a period of “deload” whilst simultaneously receiving treating for the cause of the injury. This does not mean having a period of complete rest from training, however, having a period with the same regime, however reducing one or more of your training variables (volume, frequency, intensity, duration).                                     Research from the National Strength and Conditioning Journal suggests that it can:

  • Increase strength and power by 20%
  • Increase muscle cross-sectional area by 10-25%
  • Lower levels of cortisol (stress hormone)
  • Increase levels of testosterone
  • Improve mood

Apart from delightful physical benefits, periods of deloading can also benefit an individual psychologically, by improving mindset, especially when you’re hitting plateaus whilst training to capacity every single session.

Improving athletic performance doesn’t occur overnight, for any individual and at any level; so it’s vital to ensure that you’re always optimising training especially when injured.


By William Chin


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