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Pain isn't always necessary when trying to make gains

Running & Fitness
Saturday, July 11, 2020

This week I had the good fortune to meet with an old acquaintance that I have known since he was a youngster. His father was very instrumental in guiding me in my education and actually providing me with employment opportunities. I have not seen him for almost 30 years even though we both live in Texas. It was interesting to recall some of the events and times we shared when we were both living in San Marcos. What brought back memories was a time when we lifted weights together. The one exercise that he remembered most after all these years was the toe raise exercise we called ‘donkey raises’. The lifter would bend forward and put his hands on a support and have another lifter jump on his back like he was riding a donkey – or horse. The toe raises were done in a specific way to meet the method I used. With the feet on a board about 6 inches off the ground, the lifter would let his heels drop down as far as they could. A pause at the bottom for one count before raising up to a full range of motion as high as possible for another pause of one count at the top. The statement that my friend remembers most was that when we did the toe raise exercise it was for “pain, plus 10.” That meant that you would do toe raises until you started to feel some pain in the calf muscle and then the lifter would do 10 more repetitions.

Looking back at the exercise going slow and through a full range of motion usually found most lifters starting to feel pain at about 15 repetitions. By the time the lifter reached the tenth repetition after pain the range of motion trying to lift your heel up was measured in centimeters. I doubt that that last repetition was one inch of movement at best. And then we did it again for another two sets.

Our thought at the time was that the harder we worked the larger our calf muscles would become. Since then my observations have changed. I think if you want to get larger calf muscles you need to have parents and grandparents that had large calf muscles. If your family had skinny lower legs there is a good chance that you will have skinny calf muscles. The number of toe raises will make the muscle stronger, but they will still be skinny. I have known a few bodybuilders that have resorted to calf implants to make their lower leg muscles look bigger.

I went back to a handout I used to give my classes from Tuft’s University Health Letter written in 1989. The title of the article was, “The diet/ exercise link: separating fact from fiction.” One of the sub-titles was, “No pain, no gain.” This is still a common phrase used in workout and coaching circles to get the person to work harder. The article stated, ”You needn’t resort to marathon training sessions or push yourself until it hurts to enjoy the benefits of physical activity. In fact, excessive exercising increases the chances of bone, joint, and muscle injury, not to mention making the workout seem more like a punishment than pleasure.” That statement went against our “pain, plus 10” plan when we did toe raises. Fortunately, none of us came down with an injury, but the possibility was there. 

One thing is true in a sense that if you want to improve your performance you need to go beyond your “comfort zone.” If you want to run faster, you need to train at a faster pace. If you want to get stronger you need to lift a heavier weight. The body’s muscles and cardiorespiratory systems will adapt to the stresses placed on them. If you are running quarter-mile intervals at 90 seconds then you need to try running them at 80-85 seconds. The difference does not have to be that great to show improvement. Small increments of improvement are better, and carry less chance of injury, than trying to make large changes in your workout.

There was another subtitle in the article, “Muscle will turn to fat if you start exercising and then stop.” That brought back statements I heard when I first started lifting weights. What happens is that many may back off on the intensity of the workout, but will still eat the same. The article writes, “Untrue. It’s simply because he has put on fat over a period of time by taking in more calories than he has burned off, muscle doesn’t turn into fat or vice versa.” The fat and muscle are made of two different types of cell structure and will not change. When the intensity of the exercise is lessened than the helpings on the plate, when you eat have to be smaller to keep the fat from accumulating.

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