Train Hard, Get Hurt, Keep Making Gains

8 Ways to Train Around Pain

Injured and worried about getting small and weak? Don’t sweat it. Here’s a plan that will allow you to keep making progress.

Never Had An Injury? Then You’re Not Training Hard

Whether you agree with that sentiment or not, it’s very clear that pain is both commonplace and problematic among serious lifters.

Logic dictates that you ought to have some solid skills when it comes to managing pain when it inevitably occurs. That way, the next time you’re experiencing pain, you won’t find yourself endlessly deliberating what you should do. Instead, you’ll have a solid plan. Here are eight tactics that’ll allow you to keep training successfully.

1. First, Don’t Worry Too Much About Losing Gains

There are only two possible reasons you might train in pain, and neither apply to most lifters:

  1. You’re a pro athlete with an important competition coming up and you simply can’t afford to back off on your training, even if you’re hurting. Even though this is a rational line of thinking, it’s rarely the best approach. You’re usually better off being less than 100% fit but healthy than you are being 100% fit and injured. It doesn’t matter how fit you are if you can’t perform due to injury.
  2. You stand to lose an unacceptable amount of progress if you can’t do a certain exercise or train a particular body part for some unknown length of time while you allow your injury to resolve.

There are a few problems with this line of thinking. Sure, if you can’t train a certain exercise or muscle for “x” number of weeks, you might lose some strength, size, or other fitness quality that’s important to you. However, if you DO continue to train in pain, you’re simply putting off the inevitable and delaying the time required to get back to pain-free training again.

A lot of people don’t stop to consider this, but we tend to hurt doing things we do most and/or do hardest. Powerlifters have painful shoulders from benching, weightlifters often have sore knees from squatting, and so on. Now here’s the thing: Muscles that have a long training history can RETAIN their adaptations for a surprisingly long time.

In other words, that painful exercise is the one that you can actually afford to give a break for a while. Ever meet older, busted-up lifters who still looked jacked AF even though they claim they really can’t lift heavy any more? This is evidence of what I’m talking about. These guys have trained for so many years, their adaptations (hypertrophy in particular) will last almost indefinitely, even without training.

Bottom line: The reason your shoulder or knee (or whatever) hurts all the time is because you’ve been training the piss out of it since forever. If you take a month or two, or even three, to allow it to recover, guess what? You probably won’t lose a thing, and even if you do, it’ll come back amazingly fast.

2. Use Load Maximizing Tactics

You need load to create an adaptation, but there are several ways to get more benefit, with less orthopedic risk, from any given weight. These include:

Occlusion Training

Also known as blood flow restriction training, this involves using a tourniquet placed either high on the hips (for leg training) or high on the arms (for arm training). The idea is to tie the tourniquet, which is usually a knee wrap or elastic tubing, tight enough to restrict venous return, but not so tight as to restrict arterial blood flow to the limb. This means pressure along the lines of a 7 on a 1-10 scale of discomfort.

Here’s Mark Dugdale using this technique for calves:

For reasons that are still mostly unknown, occlusion training allows you to reap the benefits you’d normally get with heavy loads by using very light weights (20-30% of 1RM). Occlusion training won’t directly improve your strength as much as it’ll serve as a stimulus for hypertrophy, but if you’ve got joint issues that prevent heavy training, occlusion training can be a godsend.

Eccentric Isometrics

This involves lowering a weight slowly (4-5 seconds), holding the stretch in the bottom position for a second or two, then lifting it quickly. Here’s an example from Dr. Joel Seedman:

The idea is to accentuate the eccentric (negative) part of the rep, which is known to be largely responsible for the benefits of weight training. However, an additional benefit of slow eccentrics is that for any given weight, the slower you move it, the less total stress on the joint: less weight, more results. Additionally, lowering a weight slowly has some scientific support as being therapeutic for tendinitis.

When you perform an eccentric contraction, you’re creating muscular tension without movement at the joint. While this isn’t ideal for increasing muscle growth, it’s reasonably effective at helping to maintain current levels of muscle mass. It’s also fairly effective at improving strength, particularly at the joint angle(s) being trained, and it’s certainly the least irritating type of training for your joints.

3. Have a “Plan B” Ready To Go

Whenever you’re dealing with a problematic body part, you should have an alternative exercise already identified before you start the workout, rather than after you discover that the programmed exercise isn’t going to work.

This might seem like a minor distinction, but it really isn’t. Imagine that squatting has been iffy lately due to low back pain, and you’re scheduled to squat today. If you don’t have a plan B already programmed and sure enough your low back starts bitching at you when you start squatting, you’re likely to make bad decisions out of sheer frustration. For example, you might just forge ahead despite the pain, or you might become exasperated and just leave the gym.

But if you have an alternative exercise already in your program – such as incline hack squats – you’ll be much less likely to feel unhinged when your “plan A” exercise doesn’t pan out. Accordingly, instead of making your injury worse, or simply not training at all, you’ll make the best decision, which is to train a similar, non-painful exercise that will keep your progress on track.

4. Turn Your Injury Into Opportunity

Any muscle that’s been trained hard for a long time has a slow adaptation decay rate. This is evidenced by experienced bodybuilders who maintain most of their size after long layoffs. This means that you can give your bench a substantial rest without fear of losing significant ground.

And that’s your opportunity. You now have a lot of energy to direct toward weaknesses. This might mean weak muscle groups that are holding back your bench (triceps and lats for example), or it might refer to your technical ability (poor technique is another cause of injury, obviously) or even another motor quality such as mobility.

The take-home point is, the stuff that hurts is also the stuff that you can afford to put on the back burner for a while without fear of losing your gains. Time to get after your weak points while you let those achy joints cool off. And as a bonus, you’ll learn how nice it feels to train without pain, which will do wonders for your long-term motivation.

5. Do Suspicious Exercises Last

Ever notice how painful exercises tend to be the ones you do first in the workout? Funny how that works. We tend to do our favorite exercises first, while we’re still fresh. That means we devote the most time and energy to those exercises, which is why we develop overuse injuries on them.

So do those overcooked exercises last, not first. This way, the exercises you do beforehand will serve as a general warm-up, which might very well reduce or even eliminate pain symptoms. Further, when you do your favorite (but painful) exercise last, you won’t have as much energy by that point, which means you might end up being too tired to do yourself further harm.

6. Use Indirect Loading First

You can warm up a joint by doing an exercise that loads it or by using an exercise that doesn’t directly load it. Case in point: You’re planning to squat, but your knees are “iffy.” So you do what everyone else does: you start warming up with light squats, but sure enough, it hurts right from the get-go.

A better strategy might be to warm up those cranky knees with a few high-rep sets of leg curls, which don’t load your knees. This will stimulate the production of synovial fluid to lube up those knees, which oftentimes is all you need to squat without pain. Training your back before you bench is another application of this tactic.

7. Don’t Be Fooled By Chemicals

Elite strength coach Mike Boyle once said, and I’m paraphrasing, “If you have pain that goes away after warming up, that’s equivocating. It’s still pain.”

Boyle’s clients are highly paid professional athletes whose incomes depend on being as healthy as possible. And that’s not a bad standard to apply to yourself. Why not train the way you would if you were a pro athlete?

When you warm up, your body produces various chemicals such as histamine, just to name one, which can have an anesthetic effect, masking minor pain. So if you don’t want minor issues to escalate, heed Boyle’s warning. Dealing with injuries early involves less time off than dealing with them later.

8. Get Some Professional Help, You Dummy!

Thankfully, most lifting-related injuries usually go away before too long if you just stop re-injuring yourself over and over. But if you’ve got a painful joint that isn’t getting better despite a prolonged rest, get it checked out by an orthopedist who is (ideally) familiar with lifting weights.

Yes, he’ll probably tell you to stop doing stuff that hurts, but I hope by this point, you’re already more sympathetic to that viewpoint. While training in pain might quell your fear of atrophy in the short term, in the long term, it’s always the worst decision.