The Problem with “No Pain, No Gain”
If you’re training for an athletic competition with a healthy body and if you wish to get the most out of your abilities and performance, the dictum “no pain, no gain” makes sense. In order to improve speed, strength, endurance, and specific physical skills we need to push our bodies to their limits.
But in the context of relieving chronic pain and employing various stretching and other exercise modalities, the dictum “no pain, no gain” makes no sense whatsoever. Such a mindset runs counter to how our physiology, and especially our nervous system, operates. Rather than helping us to relieve pain such a mindset tends to perpetuate a cycle of re-aggravation. If you’ve ever diligently performed all the exercises you got from physical therapy and found yourself in more pain afterwards than before you started there’s a chance that…
1) These are not the right movements for your particular problem or...
2) You are performing these movements too strenuously.
We all know the thinking: Sure it hurts to do these exercises but that’s just part of the process, right? It’s bound too hurt somewhat before it gets better.
In the context of relieving chronic pain I assure you that this is a faulty notion and practically guarantees that we remain on a treadmill of re-aggravation. The nervous system defends against that which causes pain in an effort to protect us from further harm. When challenged, the nervous system sends a signal to our muscles to resist the movement being imposed. The result can be the muscles bracing against that movement. Rather than helping, such repeated challenges can stimulate inflammation keeping us in pain.
The “no pain, no gain” mentality is so entrenched in our thinking that over the years I’ve spent A LOT of time trying to persuade my clients to really listen to their bodies and to be more measured in how movements and exercises are performed.
While heads would nod and my clients would assure me that they would “go easy” with the prescribed stretches or movements or exercises, follow-up sessions would often reveal that they had started out going easy but had drifted back to pushing hard.
The most common refrain I'd hear would be something like, “I just figure it’s got to hurt a bit before it gets better.”
As ever, my clients are my greatest teachers and the recurrence of this phenomenon forced me to rethink my strategy. The staying power and durability of the “no pain, no gain” mentality required something strong enough to displace it. Instead of the “no pain, no gain” dictum sneakily whispering to my clients to ignore that mamby-pamby “go-easy” advice and to push their bodies more strongly — because I just need to get rid of this pain! — I needed an alternative that could be equally durable, a method with a name. Thus, The Progressive Ease Method was born.
The Progressive Ease Method
For many, this method will represent a significant departure from how physical therapy and other exercises may have previously been approached. As such, it requires an adjustment in our thinking.
This method has two parts:
1) The progressive component
2) The ease component
By progressive we mean, we are progressing through a number of repetitions of a stretch, for example. Using Active Isolated Stretching, my preferred method for very tight and stuck muscles, we perform a repeated two-second stretch with maybe five to seven reps, depending on the individual. With each rep we find the comfortable end of the range of motion. Not the most extreme point the body can push to, but rather the comfortable end of the range of motion. We note how far that range of extends and, with repeated reps, we see if we can increase the range a degree or two. If possible, we progress in increasing our range of motion.
But the second and more crucial part of our concept is ease. Without ease we cannot be successful. Here’s some of the dictionary definitions of ease.
1 - Effortlessness, no trouble, simplicity
2 - Peace, calm, tranquility, serenity
1 - Relieve, alleviate, mitigate, soothe
2 - Calm, pacify, comfort, console
Doesn’t it seem like these are the qualities we want for reducing pain? When trying to achieve relief from pain using movements, exercises and stretches, these are qualities you should be aiming for. Not only does the nervous system appreciate Progressive Ease but when we’re in pain, muscles lengthen much more more readily with this approach.
When performing stretches we need to ask our muscles to lengthen, not demand it of them. We need to gently coax, not insist.
Just as it’s often a better prescription to ask rather than demand when we’re hoping to elicit responsiveness from co-workers or family members or friends, it’s the best prescription for getting our bodies to be responsive as well.
For some, especially those experiencing really significant pain, this concept may be a welcome breath of fresh air. But for many, it will run counter to “what I’ve always thought.” No doubt the biggest adjustment must occur in our thinking. The method is not hard to do… but it can be hard to remember to do. And it can be hard to shake that deep, entrenched belief that if I just push a little harder it will be better for me.
If you are among those suffering from unexplained chronic pain, I assure you that that entrenched belief is a dead end.
You might ask: How can I tell if I’m doing Progressive Ease right?
If you’re doing a stretch so that you’re consistently moving into a feeling of pain, then you're still in the realm of “no pain, no gain.” Progressive Ease means reducing the range of motion so that pain is either not felt or, at very least, is reduced to a bare minimum even if that means moving in a very small range of motion. If we can be disciplined to remain in our comfort zone, chances greatly improve that our range of motion will improve.
If we repeatedly bang into the end point of our range of motion, each time causing a little wince of discomfort, the nervous system gets cued to stiffen up at that location. Not only does this make it hard to progress and improve our range of motion, but it keeps the nervous system on perpetual alert. A nervous system on perpetual alert will not help us with our goal of reducing pain.
Progressive Ease is not hard to do; it’s hard to remember to do. And, for some, it can be hard to sustain the belief that this method will produce results. Such is the entrenchment of the “no pain, no gain” way of thinking. But once you’ve experienced this alternate strategy and you feel the results, it becomes easier not only to remember but also to believe.