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  • Writer's picturePSBN David

No Pain, No Gain: Using Pain as a Learning Tool

A big part of what scares people off from Martial Arts is pain. By its nature, every Martial Art will have some level of pain involved during the learning process. Martial Arts like Tai Chi will have you pushing for your joints, muscles, and tendons to be doing movements outside of your ordinary range. Others that are more defense or militaristic-oriented will have you on the receiving end of strikes and techniques.


But every Martial Art follows the same idea: Pain, not Injury.


Something can hurt, and it might be sore for a few days afterwards, but the goal is to never injure. At best, an injury will take someone out of the game for a few weeks while the body rebuilds. Many people will try to “tough guy” their way through it and never let it properly recover, causing it to get worse over time. Ultimately, they’ll be forced to take that time off, but it may be permanent by the time they come to that realization. For a student just starting out, an injury early on will be a huge motivator to never come back into Martial Arts at all. It’s also often a red flag that the instructor isn’t paying close enough attention to their students and reining in that behaviour before it got to that point. Injuries have absolutely zero benefit to anyone.


Pain, however, is a great tool for learning! As a student, you’ll also have to find the sweet spot where something will hurt “the right amount”. This will be different for everyone, depending on how their body is put together, pain tolerance, and just good old-fashioned stick-to-itiveness.


 

Conditioning


It’s hard to teach your body and mind to get over that primal “it hurts, so stop doing that” reaction. Instead of thinking of pain as a “Stop” sign, it’s more of a “Proceed with Caution”. If the moment you feel any pain, you immediately stop and back off, you’ll never get past that point. Over the years, you’ll actually find that point seems to come sooner and sooner, as you lose flexibility in the joint.


Instead, you need to find that point and then slowly continue past it. After you do this enough times, you’ll learn just how much further past you can still safely go. Do THAT enough times, and your mind and body will both learn to not set off those warning bells at the earlier stage.


In fact, a study was done in 2016 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4933204/) around chronic pain in arthritis patients, which showed that there is an actual change in your brain to deal with pain. Granted chronic pain is different than getting jabbed in a pressure point a few times every week. At the very least, it does show that your brain does adapt to pain over time to make it less of an obstacle.


In short: yes, you do adapt to pain over time, and yes, it’s also all in your head.


 

Training


All this is well and good, but it still begs the question: how does this help me learn? Building up your pain tolerance and stretching is all well and good, but that’s body (brain?) conditioning rather than learning.


There’s no single answer here, and it will also depend on which Martial Art you’re practicing. Even within a single Martial Art, pain can take a few different roles, teaching different lessons for different parts of your training.


For traditional Forms (Hyung, Kata, etc.), your muscles and joints will be giving you constant feedback on all sorts of things. You want to feel them burning while you’re working hard, as that’s how you’ll improve. But you’ll also notice when you do a certain motion and your body starts shouting at you for it. Oftentimes, if you’re feeling something like a sharp pain, some part of your movement was off. Forms are not built around injuring you. Check your foot placement, the direction/angle of the motion, really break down every piece of the movement that’s causing that sharp pain. Get your instructor or someone else who’s knowledgeable and get them to watch that piece. You may need to slightly adjust something in the form to be incorrect while you build up that part of your body. This is no different than starting out in any other activity: runners don’t start at 10km, weightlifters don’t grab the 25kg dumbbells.


This carries through to techniques as well, though most techniques will have a level of pain being inflicted as part of the goal. We always practice being on both the attacking and receiving side, not just because it’s fair, but also so you can learn what you’re doing to someone. Without that context, it’s a bit like a toddler wanting to squeeze their new puppy a bit too hard. As well, this lets you and your partner work through the technique to make sure it’s actually working correctly. Just following the motions will get you halfway there, but you need to actually put the pressure on and have honest feedback from your partner. Practicing in a class is great, but if you ever actually needed to use a technique in a real situation, you better hope it works!


 

Pain is your body’s warning system to tell you something’s up. Pay attention to it, work with it, but don’t run away from it. That’s how you grow.


At the same time, don’t forget that it’s a warning system. Taking on more and more in an effort to become better faster than everyone else is reckless and a great path to just end up injured, potentially enough to be permanent.


Above all, balance it out. Work with and through your pain, but don’t lose sight of it.

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