No pain, no gain – the dark side of pain in powerlifting or any sport

I guess this motto has become either trivilialized or turned into ideology for some strength sports practitioners. Although I haven’t performed any methodologically well designed data collection, I know it’s more connected to the bodybuilding culture.

The funny thing is, as far as my underground knowledge goes, which is not small, that’s not a sport where pain is a real issue as compared to other sports.

Painkiller abuse and addiction made the headlines for collegiate athletes many times and it has been a matter of concern for professional sports. The general explanation is that athletes are pushed to the limit of performance, when they need to train and compete not only under pain, but managing chronic injury. First he or she gets prescribed a light opiate painkiller. The relief felt is so great that (s)he will inevitably try to have his/her hands on more of the magic pills to keep up with the coaches’ , friends, fans, sponsors and community’s expectations.

But what to say about our sport, powerlifting?

I remember I laughed when I read a classification of “the states of the body”, I guess it was by Dave Tate: you could either be injured, hurt or fucked up. I also vaguely remember Louis Simmons saying there was no way to be a powerlifter and not learn to cope with chronic pain.

My last technical article was about lower back pain and the deadlift. I wrote others on the same line. The next will be about psoas tightness from long working hours in the sitting position for powerlifters in the liberal arts, technical occupations or, actually, anything except very few lines of work where you must stand and move around. I just realized I am talking about pain all the time.

A few weeks ago I wrote a short “frequently asked questions” about anti-inflammatory use after a training session. Just as in the USA the use of opiates became an epidemic, the use of all sorts of anti-inflammatory drugs became so widespread in Brazil that one powerlifter friend commented that in his days (he’s not competing any more), it was almost like a post-workout supplement.

Bottom line is: I believe we have to face the fact that we may not be aware of inadequate pain management in our sport because we lack the data. No survey was carried out among powerlifters and we have no idea how widespread is the actual use of any kind of painkiller or anti-inflammatory drug in this population.

However, I am no newby: I’ve been around long enough and talk to people seriously enough to know there is lack of alternatives to the easy way out, which is self-medication.

Today I am feeling quite crapy because Monday is a specially heavy training day. Tuesday is supposed to be recovery and/or cardio day. My physiotherapist friend did some electroacupuncture, which works miracles in me, and some manipulation techniques. I have been lectured enough about not touching anti-inflammatory drugs unless in extreme conditions because my mother has become chronically neutropenic after years of AI prescription. This is a life-threatening condition and she must use a granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF) analog, for life. I might have inherited her sensitivity to AIs. Who knows.

There is very nice work being done about myofascial release and pain management. If well mastered, some people report success in self-pain management with these resources. There are also new phytotherapic alternatives being developed. We do have alternatives to the potentially dangerous abuse of pain killers and anti-inflammatory drugs to manage our inevitable soreness and pain.

We do, however, lack enough information, in general.

There are many factors involved in this: obviously, it is not in the best interest of the pharmaceutical industry that non-pharmacological alternatives become well known. Second, the sports community is not sufficiently aware of the dangers of drug abuse and addiction among athletes and its very concrete origin: chronic pain. Third, pre-hab is not standard practice among us. Most of us hardly have pre-hab and injury prevention habits, let’s face it. We don’t even know enough about them. Fourth – and I don’t know how significant this is – there is a somewhat distorted pride in being in pain, as if it showed some type of heroic stoicism and a passport to a superior human condition. The expression “no pain, no gain” has become linked to this ideology.

We are no heroes. We are just guys who derive our joy, life meaning, fun or whatever positive condition it is from being powerlifters. Other athletes are so for a number of other psycho-social factors, but they’re not doing that to save lives.

We don’t need to be proud of being in pain. We need to learn to manage pain in the best possible way.

I designed a very short survey to learn a bit more about our pain management habits. The results are open, so anyone can see them. I invite you to take a few (very few) minutes and answer it.

Pain management in powerlifting


Stuff to read:

Pro Athlete Painkiller Addiction

Painkiller Addiction Widespread in Pro Sports

Painkillers, the dark side of sports

Painkiller Misuse numbs NFL Pain



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