The Golden Era greats often spoke of overcoming the agony of intense training to power through their high-volume workouts. In this article, a former bodybuilding champ explains how to train your mind to blast through the pain barrier to make incredible gains.
The phrase “no pain, no gain” is gospel in sports training. It’s spoken around the world to motivate and push oneself through the discomfort of physical exercise. Both novice and advanced trainers need to overcome the pain of intense exertion in order to improve their physique and performance.
The mind is reluctant to voluntarily put the body through pain. Avoiding pain is a natural reaction—a hard-wired response to protect the body from harm. However, it’s only by breaking through the pain barrier that you can hope to improve. The body adapts to the stress of exercise by making the body stronger and more conditioned. In order to achieve greater muscular size, you need to master your approach to dealing with pain.
In the film “Pumping Iron,” Arnold Schwarzenegger describes the intensity of training that champion bodybuilders experience. “I have no fear of fainting in the gym,” said Schwarzenegger. “I’ve passed out many times when I was working out.”
It’s the last couple of forced repetitions that make the muscles grow, he added. Progress starts where pain begins.
A WORD OF CAUTION: Pain, in some ways, is a gift. It’s nature’s way of telling us something’s wrong. When training, you need to know the difference between the “safe” pain of physical exertion of breaking down muscle fibers and the pain from injuring tendons and other soft tissue, like muscle tears, dislocated joints, etc. One way to insure pain isn’t caused by injury is by always lifting the right way. Take your ego out of the equation. Lift as heavy as you can with perfect form. Do not lift heavy to look stronger. Listen to your body and follow your instincts. Stay safe.
How the Pros Train Through Pain
Those of us who grew up reading bodybuilding magazines, we would stare in awe at the photos of the top athletes training in the gym. As these superstars would lift amazingly heavy weights, their faces would display grimaces of pain and struggle.
Whether these photos were real or staged, it doesn’t hide the reality of what these athletes experienced—and what all bodybuilders have to deal with to make progress. These photos inspired but also instructed. Hard, painful labor is what it takes to develop a muscular physique. A bodybuilder’s unusual level of development is a result of brutally hard training that forces the muscle to grow beyond their natural tendency.
When the movie “Pumping Iron” was released in the late 1970’s, we were able to visually see how hard these superstars trained. Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno, Mike Katz, and the other bodybuilders featured in the movie would grunt, groan, and even yell out in agony during their brutal workouts.
Since “Pumping Iron,” other training videos of top bodybuilders include similar scenes of champion athletes confronting the pain barrier. The message is clear: To get what you want, you’re going to suffer. There’s no escape. So how do you deal with it?
Methods for Breaking the Pain Barrier
As Arnold explained in “Pumping Iron,” the last few reps in a set is where the real action is. You’re reaching failure, then pushing beyond it to break down muscle tissue. Here are some ways to getting beyond what you thought possible to grind out an extra rep or two.
Have a Training Partner
A training partner can push you through the pain barrier and beyond. It was in “Pumping Iron” that the method was explicitly represented. Schwarzenegger and Ed Corney were training legs. During a set of squats, Arnold urged Corney to do two more reps when it looked like he was about to quit. After Arnold pushed his training partner to force out those final reps, Corney collapsed to the ground in total exhaustion.
Try Jones’ “Total Failure”
When Arthur Jones released his Nautilus equipment in the 1970s, he advocated training the muscles harder, not longer. By reducing the volume of the workouts (number of sets) and training the muscles to failure, bodybuilders would build more muscle and not overtrain.
There are many methods of pushing the muscles to total failure. Jones’ preferred method was to train the entire body in one workout using only one or two exercises per muscle group. Jones would have his students train with heavy weights to failure on each set and then immediately jump to the next exercise with no rest in between.
Arthur Jones also suggested using the pre-exhaust training method. First isolate a muscle group and train it to failure. Follow that up with a compound movement that uses other muscles that assist in the exercise. This allows you to train a muscle much harder than conventional training would allow.
For example, Jones would have his Nautilus students do leg extensions followed immediately by leg presses. The quadriceps would be first be exhausted by the isolation exercise (leg extensions), and then would be trained even harder when the leg presses (with assistance from the quadriceps, hips, and glutes) were performed next.
Mind Techniques To Deal with Pain
The mind may be your best weapon in keeping you from letting pain get the better of you. How do you program the mind to push your body to the ultimate limit? Try these methods.
One mental strategy to overcoming the pain barrier is visualization. By mentally seeing the workout you plan to do before hitting the gym, you can prepare yourself to push beyond your normal limits.
Six-time Mr. Olympia winner Dorian Yates would do this before every workout. Yates would study his training journal hours before touching a weight. He would mentally go through each exercise and visualize the weight he would be using for each set.
When Dorian arrived at the gym to begin his workout, he didn’t have to think about what exercises to do or what weight he was going to use. He was essentially on autopilot, following the plan he already had experienced in his mind. When he got to his work sets, Yates would use the weight he had planned to use for the exact amount of repetitions he was scheduled to do. No matter how heavy the weight was, he had programmed his mind to lift that weight for that prescribed amount of reps.
Tom Platz is another bodybuilder who pushed himself to the limits with his hardcore workouts. He’s famous for having developed perhaps the biggest legs in bodybuilding history. At the beginning of his career, he worked on improving his squat totals. Eventually, Platz worked up to using very heavy weights while doing full squats with perfect form.
He decided to take his legs to another level by incorporating high repetitions with heavy weights. Instead of squatting with over 600 pounds, he would do high reps with 400 or 500 pounds. Sometimes, he would go lighter and do 50 reps with 300 pounds. Yes, these are insane poundages.
Platz’s workout intensity was off the charts. He would train until he collapsed in exhaustion after taking a set to failure. Platz was able to push himself past the pain barrier because he had a goal in mind before he began the workout. His objective was 50 reps with 300 pounds in the squat, and he wasn’t going to stop until he either reached the goal or collapsed under the weight.
Find Your Own Path Through Pain
If you want to develop a muscular physique, you will have to learn how to program your mind to push your body past its normal limits. You may find that listening to music or using visual inspiration like images of great bodybuilders on the wall of your gym can help give you that extra effort.
Sometimes anger can take your effort up a notch. Think of somebody who said you would never succeed in bodybuilding. Or you may be training for an event goal, like a contest. Thinking about how badly you want to reach that goal can help drive you to new limits. Positive thinking, affirmations, visualization, goals, constructive anger, encouragement from others—all of it can help you overcome the pain threshold.
A bodybuilder doesn’t develop his muscles by accident. Overcoming the pain barrier and pushing yourself beyond what you thought was possible is all part of the process of attaining your potential. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: no pain, no gain.
How do you deal with pain during those last few brutal reps? Let us know the techniques you use in the comments below.