No pain, no gain?
The concept of "no pain, no gain" is deeply entrenched in our fitness culture. This notion of "pain" has polarized people by discouraging some from moving while encouraging others to overtrain. Some worker bees, for example, strive to be "weekend warriors" through "hard-core" athletic training, pushing beyond their limits. This causes muscle strains, joint pain, stress fractures, and emotional fatigue - the start of a cumulative injury cycle. Ironically, when it comes to fitness, less is more.
Extend your limits, not push beyond them
It is true that by stressing our muscles and bones, we can strengthen them. Stress in this case means resistance, and not necessarily the amount of weight you put on it. It can also refer to the number of sets, repetitions, intensity (through your choice of technique), rest period, and exercise selection.
New stressor/resistance triggers "alarm reaction" - the body increases oxygen and blood supply to the areas dealing with the stress. With repeated training, the body adapts to it and becomes capable and efficient in handling that challenge. This allows us to raise our stress thresholds.
Extending our limits - not pushing beyond them - is THE sign that we are becoming stronger. Let's say we could lift a pair of 20-pound dumbbells for two sets of eight repetitions before fatigue. We know we are stronger if we can do so with 22-pound dumbbells. If we had a shoulder injury and couldn't lift our arm, we know we are stronger if we can lift it above the shoulder. In both cases we need to train within or close to our limits, allowing the body to adapt before progressing to the next level. If we suffer from chronic pain, in particular, we need to be mindful and move within the pain-free zone.
Pushing beyond limits can trigger "lockdown" and recruiting the wrong muscles
If it hurts to lift the arm above the shoulder, for instance, we should keep it below that level. This tells the body that "movement is safe" and it will allow our arm to lift a little higher the next time - even if that increment is minute. If we insist in "no pain, no gain" and raise it to where it hurts, our muscles will react by contracting and the body registers this movement as negative (for survival). It will make it harder for the arm to try reaching that threshold the next time. This is akin to a "lockdown" to protect that area.
Even if we are not in pain, as soon as we push beyond the limits we will likely loose proper form and create imbalances - the precursors to injuries and pain. Let's say we wish to strengthen and lengthen our quadriceps (the muscles in the front of the thigh). We point our foot, straighten our leg and lift it. To do it properly we should isolate that leg and stabilize the rest of our body, keeping it upright. If we try to lift our leg beyond our limits, we will likely compensate by leaning backwards and contracting our lower back muscles. This strains the back and throws it out of balance. Muscle compensation is one of the reasons why so many people suffer from back problems.
The limits to extending your limits
It also helps to remember that we are humans, and we will always have limits. Regardless of how we wish to keep extending them, we need to recognize what we are made of - literally! Muscles are far more flexible than our ligaments and tendons. Yet many people focus on extending the limits of their muscles without realizing that beyond a certain point, our ligaments and tendons cannot keep up.
Table 1a. Three main types of connective tissues
Table 1b. Muscles versus tendons
Let's say we wish to build bigger biceps (upper arms) by lifting dumbbells. We keep adding weight and train the muscles to adapt. At both ends of the biceps are tendons which connect them to the bones. When the biceps become stronger through repeated concentric contractions - or simply put, squeezing, the muscles become shorter, pulling and stretching the tendons at both ends. This can strain these connective tissues, causing inflammation and pain.
It is not uncommon for weight-lifting buffs to come down with tendonitis or ligament injury. Unlike muscles, ligaments and tendons do not have blood supply. They are also far less flexible (ability to extend) or strong (ability to contract) compared to muscles. These make them more susceptible to injuries and harder to heal. This is why in conventional resistance training it is healthy to cycle through stages of of increasing challenges with rest and recovery. It is also important to include adequate conditioning and stretching in resistance training routines.
Instead of strengthening through squeezing/shortening the mulches, in Essentrics we stretch and strengthen simultaneously throughout the workout. We also use body weight as resistance so there is no micro tearing in our muscles, internal bleeding, or muscle soreness. This allows us to workout daily without the need of a typical 48-hour rest period. During an Essentrics workout we cycle through challenging full-body movements with reprieves. The full-body "trademark" movements are usually five to six minutes long, engaging all the muscle chains in the body. This duration is the typical limit for most people, beyond which our muscles will start to rebel by contracting. During the reprieves we perform less exhausting movements that isolate body parts, such as leg lifts and arm work. This keeps the body active yet allows it to recover sufficiently. Essentrics is therefore a safe and efficient form of workout.
No pain, ever
Instead of abiding by the "no pain, no gain" mantra, we can simply motivate ourselves to extend our limits. Instead of wearing pains and injuries as badges of honor and hard work, we should treat them as what they are - signals to stop hurting ourselves. We are far better off if there is no pain, ever!