Serge Nubret, Bench Press

Training Around Pain

I can remember being a kid and telling my dad “Dad it hurts when I do this.” And his response was always the same every time.

“So stop doing that.”

Seems logical doesn’t it?

I guess logic doesn’t apply to lifters a lot of times, because I know so many guys that have pain when they do certain movements, but keep on doing them. I get why. It’s because they are the competitive lifts, or because they want to get really good at a certain movements and won’t stop doing them despite the pain. However, if a movement hurts or causes pain, you really have to understand the importance of training around an injury, rather than through it.

The two main causes for “pain” in training are that of either a sudden injury, like a strain/tear, or because of overuse.

When a guy has a sudden injury, he generally has the understanding that he may need to wait until the pain subsides before he eases back into doing that movement. At least, I hope he does. It wouldn’t make a lot of sense to try and keep deadlifting with a torn biceps or benching with a torn pec.

That leaves us with overuse pain.

The term “overuse” seems fairly obvious. You do something too often or too much of it, and an area that is involved in performing that movement becomes less “functional”, i.e. inflammation, stress fractures, etc.

Pain will always inhibit efficient or optimal performance. You can’t explode as hard as possible out of a squat if your knee is aching. It’s hard to feel strong if the whole time you’re “feeling” to see if that ache is going to be there when you perform a particular movement. It’s hard to move naturally when pain is involved in performing. The body wants to protect that area from further damage so pain is the signal you’re getting to let you know, shit just aint right.

Because I wasn’t really married to certain movements in my early training days, if I got injured or was suffering from some sort of overuse, I just stopped doing that movement, and found a “like” movement to perform in place of it.

For example, if bench pressing was hurting my shoulder, I would test other barbell, machine, and dumbbell pressing movements to see what did not hurt. That way, I could still map out a productive training plan and not be limited in progressing because I was married to barbell bench pressing.

This was an instinctive lesson I learned on my own that has paid huge dividends throughout the years. Instead of letting months pass by without progress, I merely changed the scope of what I would be progressing on, then would come back to the movement(s) that had caused me pain to see where I stood.

Often times, giving that movement a break was just what I needed in order to allow the pain of overuse subside.

For example, a couple of years ago I developed pain in my hip from barbell back squats. No matter what I did to remedy it, it would not go away. I even worked with a physical therapist who specialized in working with athletes to fix it. But the pain never went away. I eventually came to the conclusion that it was possible I was just irritating the problem more by trying to fix it. Sometimes, you just have to leave something alone for a while in order for it to get better.

I dropped back squats for a while, and found I could leg press and hack squat without pain. So those were the two movements I concentrated on for several months. When I finally came back to squatting, the hip pain had subsided and I was able to change some things in my squat technique that may have contributed to the pain in the first place. Not only that, but focusing on the leg press and hack squat had brought my quad strength up tremendously, which actually helped boost my back squat once I was squatting regularly again.

When overuse injuries set in, it’s usually because of a few reasons…

1. Improper technique, so that the load isn’t distributed as efficiently as possible across the musculature involved in the lift.

2. Improper balancing of intensity, frequency, and volume involved in the lift. You may be doing that movement too heavy, too often, for too much volume, or all combined.

3. Imbalances in musculature. You may have a muscle that isn’t strong enough to efficiently do its job. It’s the “weak link in the chain” syndrome. If your tertiary concentric mover is weak, then your secondary concentric mover has to do more work to make up for it. This is why strengthening smaller support movers can and will keep you healthy and avoid both sudden injuries and overuse issues as well.

Now that we’ve covered some of the main reasons overuse happens, then the ability to avoid it become more clear.

1. Make sure the develop and constantly refine your technique. Work with experienced coaches whenever possible to have them correct flaws and problems in your movements.

2. Balance your intensity, frequency, and volume appropriately. I have written many times about the sliding scale of intensity. If you are going to train frequently, with high volume, then intensity (percentage of 1 rep max) has to be scaled downwards a bit. If you train a movement less frequently, then volume AND intensity can be raised a bit. Each of these facets work together to establish training efficiency. Make sure you keep them in balance with each other

3. Don’t neglect your supportive muscle groups. Lots of guys don’t do things like cuff work, forearm work, rear deltoid work, so forth and so on. The areas that do a lot of stabilizing in the big compound lifts need direct work as well. Lots of guys end up with tender elbows because their forearm extensor and flexors are weak. Many a shoulder problems could have been avoided with a few minutes of external rotation work for the rotator cuffs. Don’t neglect this kind of work.

4. Lastly, it behooves you to avoid doing a movement that has overuse pain associated with it and find a suitable replacement for it, that you can do pain free. It’s usually not difficult to find a “like” movement that can be done without pain. Dumbbell bench presses can replace barbell bench presses because the dumbbells don’t lock your wrists, shoulders, and elbows into a defined movement pattern. Experiment with different variations, grip, and foot placement to see if that helps alleviate the pain. If a supportive muscle group is suffering from overuse then eliminating a barbell movement in favor of a machine that doesn’t make the stabilizer work as hard can be helpful.

As I made note earlier, you have to understand how and when to train around an injury rather than through it. The worst thing you can do is continue doing what got you hurt in the first place, and exacerbate the situation. Train hard, but train smart.

Want to know more about Paul Carter’s methodology?  Get his excellent book Base Building over at

Paul Carter, Base Building