Heads up: I’m not a doctor. I can’t diagnose or treat pain. I’m a fitness coach who’s worked with a lot of clients, almost all of whom have had some sort of pain. If you experience physical pain, see your doctor or a well-trained physiotherapist.
If you feel pain, you aren’t broken. I’ve got a big problem with the way a lot of health and fitness pros speak to their clients about their pain. I think the words we use as fitness pros have the power to help people move forward or hold them “stuck” where they are.
But first, I wanna tell you a story…
The summer after my senior year in high school, I worked a summer job doing grounds maintenance at my school. I got to work outdoors and use power tools. It was a young guy’s dream summer job.
That year, the school bought a brand new shiny F-150 for the maintenance staff. My bosses were pretty lax fellows which meant that irresponsible 18 year old Francis ended up getting to drive that truck. I was stoked!
Of course, the first time I drove it. A grand total of maybe 400-500 metres to move some brush to a trash bin, I side-swiped a fence and put a nice scratch on one side.
I was mortified.
Everyone I worked with was pretty pissed off at me and was trying to cover it up from the grounds manager. Myself, I just wanted to sink into the ground. I was totally embarrassed.
A construction worker who was taking a lunch break from some renos on the school noticed how upset I looked and comforted me saying “Relax, buddy. It’s a work, truck. What did you think was gonna happen to it?”
It took me a little while to get over it but that comment stuck with me.
There’s no sense crying over spilled milk.
Broke a china plate at home? Hey, better to use it and break it, than to never use it at all. Things are meant to be used, sometimes things get broken. That’s life.
Life goes on, and so do we.
And this brings me to our bodies….
Your Body is a Work Truck
You see, imagine your body as that F-150. When you’re born, you’re given a brand new body. It’s yours to use.
When we’re kids, we never seem to have a problem with this. We run around, get scrapes, bumps, and bruises, recover, and don’t think much of it the next day.
Somewhere down the road, though, we forget what it feels like to hurt physically. Our environments are too safe.
Then the odd time we get pain, we’re shocked. We think:
“I don’t recover like a kid anymore!”
“If I have to limp for the rest of my life, my life is ruined!”
It’s true that as you age, you don’t recover quite as fast.
It isn’t true that getting hurt means you’re broken or that your life is ruined.
Again, like that F-150, your body is meant to be used. And its more durable than you think. By the end of a life well lived, I would expect you to have some bruises, some funny joints, some scars.
They make you you.
Myself, I’ve got a cranky left hip and some tightness in my left shoulder; artifacts from a time when I trained hard and dumb. They remind me that I’m not invincible, no matter what I think.
I often hear people talk about how broken they are. An old tricky knee, a shoulder strain, a foot they can’t use too much, a wrist with chronic pain. Everyone has something.
When Pain Becomes a Mentality
Almost invariably, though, the talk of brokenness or pain is followed up immediately with the phrase “I can’t.”
And if there’s one thing I hate, it’s the word “can’t”
Now this isn’t a knock on anyone whose used the word “can’t,” I use the word myself all the time.
And if you’ve got an injury, it’s very important to know about it and to know what will and won’t aggravate it as well as how to make it feel better. My issue isn’t with that.
My issue is with professionals who perpetuate the belief that an injury, a scar, a setback, will prevent you from living an awesome and fulfilling life.
As a health and fitness professionals, how I speak to my clients is extremely important. This goes doubly so for doctors, physiotherapists, and medical practitioners whose job it is to deal specifically with pain.
If someone comes to me and says they have a hip that hurts, I can do one of two things:
1. I can immediately start fawning over them, “hmm”-ing and “aww”-ing, saying things like “Oh, that’s not normal, you should get that checked out!” and telling them “don’t do this,” and “don’t do that,” contra-indicating basic living movements like squatting, bending, and even walking.
2. I can help them feel normal by relating to them about the pain of someone I know or my own pain. I can reassure them that we’ll avoid what hurts in the gym and work on things that will make them stronger. I can ask some questions about what they feel, and refer them to a practitioner who will help them to feel better and get stronger while helping them see the possibilities of the future, rather than its’ limitations.
It isn’t sugar coating and it isn’t lying. It’s the truth. And if you don’t believe that option number 2 is the most true and most helpful option, then you shouldn’t be in health and fitness. At all.
As a health pro, we have someone’s undivided attention. You have their trust.
We can tell them things like:
“You’ll never make a full recovery.”
“I’ve never seen that before!”
“This is only going to get worse.”
“Be careful. It could fall apart any day.”
And consequently make your client feel broken and incapable and alienated.
Or you can tell them things like:
“You might not get full function back but with some training, we can keep it from getting worse and, who knows, maybe we’ll see a small improvement.”
“Back pain is pretty common these days. The nice thing is that we’ve gained lots of experience on how to deal with it. We’ll make sure we get you the help you need to feel better.”
“With some strength training, you’ll actually improve the stability of your joints and you won’t have to guard that shoulder so much.”
I’m not suggesting that anybody truck right through painful movements “because f*ck it, I’m gonna hurt anyway,” what I’m saying is that you can’t avoid pain in life.
Coach Mark Rippetoe said it best at a seminar I went to years ago. When someone asked him about training injury free, he responded sarcastically with something along the lines of this:
“If you want to avoid injury completely? Hmmm… Sit on the couch… All day. Don’t do anything. In fact, get bubble wrap and wrap yourself up completely. That oughtta do the trick!"
See Your Possibilities, Not Your Limitations
Your body is a work truck.
It’s meant to be used. It’s meant to be put to work. It’s strong and capable – stronger than you think. And just because you’re injured doesn’t mean you’re broken. By the end of a life well-lived, expect to have a few scars. Wear them proudly. They’re a part of who you are.
If you’re hurting right now, I know it sucks. In my life, I’ve had only a glimpse of the pain that some people experience every day. All I ask is that you try to spend time around people who inspire you and help you to see the possibilities ahead of you rather than people who make you painfully aware of your limitations (including healthcare practitioners who aren’t aware of the power of their words).
It’s not worth it to spend your life wishing you were somewhere other than where you are right now or dreaming that you could feel differently from how you do right now. Focus on possibilities, not on your limitations, not on your “lacks,” your shortcomings or “what could have been.”
Instead, overcome your pain with strength. Even if you can’t decrease the pain you feel, you can manage it, you can build yourself up to be stronger than it, physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Keep your head up, keep your eyes ahead, and keep good people around you. And slowly, bit by bit, you might find that you feel a little better, a little more capable, a little stronger, and that you start switching your focus away from what you “can’t” do and on to what you can.