It’s been almost ten years since a doctor told me that the pain in my knee was from old age and from using my knee too much. I was in my last year of college and had already been sitting on my butt for three years waiting for a shoulder injury and repetitive strain issues in my hands to calm down. It was a big turning point for me. It was the last straw in a long line of bad advice I’d gotten about my aches and pains, and it made me start heading in another direction.
Fast forward to last night. I did a “clean and jerk” with 135 pounds for the first time in my life. And then I did it over and over again. I’m stronger in my early 30s than I’ve ever been, even in activities that I’d always been afraid to try. The mornings with calf cramping and foot pain are gone. My shoulders no longer feel like they’ll rip apart when I hang from a pull-up bar. The hands and wrists feel good even after a long day at the computer. The knee doesn’t bother me at all. The hips are more mobile and strong than they probably ever were. I am able to do more than anyone thought possible 10 years ago, and it’s because of two things.
1) I believed that the aches and pains meant something.
It’s en vogue these days to talk about the neurology of pain and how “all pain is in the brain” and how you need to get people to see pain as a biopsychosocial issue to help them beat chronic pain. The pain isn’t a sign of tissue damage or biomechanical issues. The pain is more about the person’s way of thinking and chemical imbalances. I think this is a load of crap and a load of gold at the same time.
There are those in the super neuro side of things who think that pain is just a matter of opinion and that it supplies very little information about malfunctions in the body. If you’re an athlete who’s ever pulled a muscle or been slashed with a hockey stick, you should be raising an eyebrow. If you’ve ever felt a hamstring get so tight that your knee hurt, you should be raising an eyebrow. There are a host of basic musculoskeletal and biomechanical issues that can cause pain, and they do cause pain. For many people, the tightness, weakness, and dysfunctions in the connective and muscular tissue get overlooked, glossed over, and dismissed due to an overly simplistic view of how to assess muscle imbalances. Just because the assessment tools and protocols are often archaic and lacking in measurement accuracy doesn’t mean there is no problem. Having no Geiger counter doesn’t make you immune to radiation.
That said, there are times when your brain can absolutely be doing you in. Fear of pain, for example, will absolutely undermine your progress. Fear of discomfort and pain can stop you from ever addressing the deep-seated imbalances that may be making your hips tight, your shoulders sore, and your breath short. Fear of impending doom, of impending hip surgery, of impending knee replacement can make you lose sight of the nearly infinite number of things you can try to correct your imbalances and place all your focus on that thing that you fear. You’ll be paralyzed, sliding towards the gaping chasm you hope to avoid.
You can also be overly sensitive because of your fear. You may have been told your back is fragile and that you’re going to damage it if you do anything with it. So you treat it gingerly, tense up because you’re afraid you’ll hurt it, and in the end you make it hurt more with all the tension you put into it.
Another version of that fear is the fear that anything you do will make the situation worse. Look, sometimes you can and will do things that will make you worse off, but that’s useful sometimes. Sometimes you need to know how to make a situation worse before you can make it better (it’s called provocative testing). You have to be willing to test things, accept that not every experiment will succeed, and believe that as you continue you will find the answers you’re looking for.
Which brings me to item 2…
2) I kept trying different stretches, different mobilization techniques, different exercises, different levels of demand, different angles of challenge, different volume of repetitions, etc. for all my problem areas. Sometimes I had to use a gentle stretch to get my hip to feel better. Sometimes I had to use a relatively weight to stimulate enough muscle activity to change things up. Sometimes I had to twist a joint in a different direction that expected or work a muscle that I thought was already too strong (but which was actually just stiff). There are a lot of unknowns when dealing with muscle imbalances, and a lot of the knowns are actually just chimera. Experimentation with your end goal in mind will get you where you want to go.
You can always get guidance from others on the road, but ultimately it comes down to you learning about your body, knowing where you want to go, and consistently pushing ahead so that your body has no choice but to meet the challenges you present it.
Your body is resilient. Believe in it, push yourself, and see just how far you can take it.
I may not get this far, but I AM heading closer and closer to it every day.