Ow ow ow ow ow: a primer on pain


For many years, I lifted weights without seeing much progress. There were several things that were unwittingly holding me back. One of them was my relationship with pain.

If you’re going to lift weights to grow, you’re going to have to develop a relationship with pain. You’ll have to learn the difference between good pain and bad pain. You’ll need to learn to pursue the good pain, dwell in it as long as you can endure. But “no pain no gain” is a misleading slogan, because you’ll also need to watch out for bad pain, and be wise enough to never push yourself through it when it shows up.



Don’t you hate when people grunt and moan and yell at the gym?

No, I don’t. And neither should you. You should be grunting and moaning and even occasionally yelling, too. At the very least you should be pulling funny faces.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. There are drama queens and attention hogs who engage in unnecessary operatics and death metal screams. Mental focus is an important part of lifting. These foolish people are a distraction, and in a perfect world they wouldn’t be making unnecessary noise, but, the world being what it is, take it as an opportunity to practice your mental focus.

But my point is – those noises are often necessary. Often, the people making those noises can’t help it. They should be making those noises. If you’re training with sufficient intensity, you can’t help but groan, grunt, moan, and, yes, occasionally let out an involuntary yell.

Well, what is sufficient intensity? It all depends on your goals. If your goal is just general well-being, disease prevention, that kind of thing – then you don’t ever need to make a peep. You can stay perfectly composed during your workout.

If you want to change your body’s composition and shape, though, then you need to get intense. Because the body doesn’t want to change, and it won’t, unless it thinks it’s necessary to its very survival to do so.

When I was younger and spinning my wheels in the gym, I didn’t know what intensity was. I thought I did. It’s not sweating. You should obviously be sweating. Intensity is the knowledge that when it starts to burn, the work is not over. When it starts to burn, the work has begun. All the repetitions up to that point were just laying the ground-work.

“Resting” between sets. I’m not a drama queen. I don’t like to draw attention to myself. I am not that good an actor.

It took working with other people for me to learn, in a visceral, and yes, sometimes loud, way, what intensity feels like. It’s doing a set of leg press, struggling for the twelfth repetition, and hearing the other person say – give me five more – and you giving him those five, even though you don’t know how you even manage it. That very last repetition, number 17 when you thought your limit was 12, requires that primal energy, almost like the hysterical strength that lets the 110 lbs mom lift the car off her toddler.

Not every set needs to be to failure – that means, repetitions performed until you literally cannot do another (and you have to try to do another and have it fail – don’t trust your brain when it says “I can’t,” because, almost always, you can, your brain just doesn’t want to). But every good workout that’s not a rehab or a deload workout has several sets that are to failure.

A thousand-yard stare when it’s all over is also not uncommon. Remember, this is fun! (and it is!)

For people who haven’t yet learned how to get really intense, the brain is often the limiting factor, rather than your true muscular strength and endurance. There are different ways of tricking your brain, or defeating its objections. But a lot of them will involve you making noise, because, well, you’re doing this under mental duress. It’s kind of scary. It definitely hurts. It’s supposed to hurt. It will leave you a shaking mess. You might even cry. You might even laugh (I sometimes break into wild, hysterical laughter when the set is over). You might even throw up. Or you might do none of those things – you might just lie on the floor, dazed. But if you can stand cheerfully by the squat rack and have a calm conversation, well – you might think about doing a few more reps next set, or adding a little more weight to the bar. And maybe making a little noise.
NOTE: Intensity coupled with bad or incorrect form is a very dangerous combination. Make sure you are doing the exercises correctly before you take your intensity to the next level. The body doesn’t want to change, so, if change is the goal, we have to make it think it must change – but an injury is the wrong kind of change, for sure!

Personal Training and Progress


So, really, I didn’t start to see any success in the gym until a bunch of things happened. Three things were truly vital: learning proper form and forging a mind muscle connection with each exercise; summoning greater intensity and frequency in training; learning more purposeful and intelligent eating practices, eating focused on my goals. Each was necessary. I go into this in greater detail in my “Escape From Skinny-Fat Jail” video.

But I should fess up – I was helped hugely along that path by hiring a trainer in September 2013. He taught me basically everything about form and mind-muscle connection, and also taught me a lot about intensity and frequency (eating, I’ve so far figured out on my own).

I have to believe it’s possible to succeed without a trainer, that it is possible to be a gym autodidact and to make great progress. To correctly learn form from watching youtube videos. To have the native physical intelligence to understand and cultivate mind muscle connection after having learned the concept.

However, my own experience – and the experiences of many people I know – suggest that hiring a competent trainer really is the best thing you can do to expedite the process. For me, I’m not sure I would have ever made it on my own. I had been trying for years, with very little to show for it. I was a failed gym autodidact.

When you’re used to being intelligent, when ‘smart’ is a core part of your self concept, it is humbling to realize there are subject areas where you are kind of an idiot, where you don’t have the tools to lift yourself out of your ignorance and begin to succeed. In short: I needed help, and I’m glad I eventually sought it out.

To the left is what I looked like before I got a trainer, in January of 2013. 6′ tall, 183 lbs, 25.1% body fat (according to a DEXA scan taken a couple of weeks after this photo). Keep in mind, I had been going to the gym and lifting weights for many years at that point.

Trainers are not cheap. I was lucky, in that my trainer was near the bottom rung of the ladder in terms of cost, but was very competent and dedicated in terms of skill and education – some trainers are charlatans, and others are just apathetic. My guy was neither. I didn’t research him. I just got lucky.

But even still, at $40 a session, this was an extravagence (financially offset by the fact that I stopped drinking, which is an expensive habit). Some gyms include a training session with membership. Some gyms, like many campus gyms at universities, have subsidized training which is cheaper than at commercial gyms.

Ten sessions are better than none. Five sessions are better than none. Even three are worth your while – a trainer can show you what intensity looks like, can teach you new exercises, can correct your form in a way that means you will stop wasting your time doing exercises wrong, and risking injury to boot. Or one could sign up for a group lifting seminar, where a number of new people are taught the core lifts correctly. (Anxiety-provoking? Yes. But gym anxiety is a demon that has to be wrestled with and subdued if progress is to happen. Yes, I’m planning a video, naturally).

I owe Sean, my old trainer, a gigantic debt of gratitude. I worked closely with him for about twenty months, until the gym where we trained was knocked down for Yet Another Condo Project (welcome to Toronto). In the year after that we still trained together sometimes, as we could fit it in. But we haven’t worked together regularly for a while, and not at all for a few months. I’ve been sole captain of my own ship since July 2016, programming my own workouts, making my own diet plan, etc.

To the right is what I look like today. Still 6′, 187 lbs, body fat unknown but definitely a lot lower than it was. I have delts now!

Tomorrow, I’m starting with a new coach. I say coach rather than trainer, because he’ll only be supervising one workout a week, but he’ll be setting every aspect of my training and nutrition for me. We’ll be working together very closely to push me toward my goals – and they’re ambitious goals.

I don’t know what to expect. And I’m a little nervous. I want to be this guy’s star pupil. I want to wring every bit of benefit I can from this experience. I want to learn more. I want to see where this road goes.