The Pulse


Pain beats cake

by Patrick Reynolds

Let's say you're looking at two different training options. The first one has you running 50km a week for an average of 4000 calories burned over 7 days. The other has you running for 20km a week plus intense strength training, (which doesn't use a lot of calories) netting you 1900 calories burned over 7 days. The question is, which program will end with you losing more fat?


I'd put my money on the second course. The reason? Pain.

Last year in the New Yorker Maria Konnikova wrote an interesting case summary of how pain changes our behavior. The long and short of it is that pain appears to bond us more strongly with other people and the institutions we belong to. At a religious festival in Mauritius, the worshippers who underwent more painful rites (like dragging carts for hours attached by hooks in their backs) ended up giving more money to the temple. University students who had to keep their hands submerged in ice water felt more connected and loyal to their fellow ice water suffers than those who had placed their hands in lukewarm water.

There are more examples, and they all point to the same intuitive fact; when we go through a painful experience, we tend to assign more value to the activity that caused the pain and the people who underwent it with us. This is probably why we see hazing rituals in every group from primitive tribes to campus sororities. Going through a painful ordeal for something makes you more loyal to it.

This article made something click for me. Something I had been trying to put my finger on about what makes for a successful training program. It can be summed up in a simple phrase:

Pain beats cake.

When we train people to get in great shape, we tell them again and again (and again) that a good diet is the key to the whole operation. If you're eating fresh, wholesome food in the right proportions, you're winning 80% of the battle before you've done a single set or rep of exercise. A good body is made in the kitchen.


Looking at most fitness plans and products, you would think the opposite. They spend the majority of their time hyping this or that new exercise technique or fitness gadget. They try to sign you up for personal trainers, gym memberships, and DVD workouts. At the bottom of the ads you might occasionally see a small asterisk that says " *along with a balanced diet " but that's about all the love that nutrition gets. This leads to people thinking that if anything is 80% of the battle, it must be exercise.

It's easy to understand why the emphasis is placed on exercise. If you're telling people the truth about nutrition, you no longer have anything to sell them. The supermarket produce aisle becomes their first and last stop for getting in shape. So the exercise plans and fitness gadgets get all the attention.

This is why we spend so much time deprogramming people in our programs. Nutrition, nutrition, nutrition. I often tell people that if their diet is impeccable, the exercise portion of a program doesn't even matter that much. They could be kayaking, baling hay, or ballroom dancing, and they'd see similar changes to their physique as someone doing a traditional workout.


But a nutrition plan is only as good as your ability to comply with it. And this is where pain comes into the picture.

Remember the example we started with. One course has you only running. Running isn't easy to be sure, but as you do it you're not going to wrestle with bouts of intense pain in any one region of your body. Running is more of a slow burn, spread across many muscle groups and tiring out the whole system. You can crunch through 800 calories with your run, but none of those calories are particularly painful.

Contrast this with the option that has less running but more strength training. If you're doing it right, building muscle should be a painful process. You can experience it right now. Hit the deck and give me 5 sets of 20 push-ups. If you really want to understand this post at the deepest level don't just sit there, do it. Feel free to drop your knees on the floor if that's where you're at with your push-ups right now. Let's explore the sensations you'll experience. 


Set 1: If you're doing the push-ups with good form, going nice and deep at a slow pace, you're going feel a burn that starts in your arms, shoulders and chest as you round out 20 reps in the first set. Take a 20 second break, and hit it again.

Set 2: You'll feel the burn around 15 reps in this time, with the last 5 reps being extra spicy.

Set 3: The third set will find the burn hitting at around 10 reps, and you'll find the last 10 reps are starting to become very taxing. You'll feel hotspots of agony in the back of your arms and the attachment points of your pec to your clavicle in particular.

Set 4: You'll get a strong burn around 5 reps, giving you a nice 15 reps to suffer through an intense flamethrower of pain in your arms and chest. You'll find your breath getting ragged as your muscles drink up oxygen, your face will contort and grimace, and your form will deteriorate considerably. Keep going!

Set 5: The burn sets in almost immediately. Each rep feels like it stretches on forever. The hotspots have now flared into an all over burn that spreads across your chest and arms. You might not even be able to finish the set, as the muscles exhaust ATP and you collapse in a heap on the floor, a state that bodybuilders call "failure".


 People in this final set will exhibit all the signs of being tortured. Grunts, screams,  and tears are all common sights. Very few exercisers actually make it to this point;  they lack the mental strength to push through into the truly painful territory of severe  burn and total muscle failure. But this crucible of effort is where you get the most  progress in your project of creating new muscle tissue. If diet and sleep are both on  point, someone who's working to deep burn and failure will add muscle faster and  more efficiently than those who get a mild burn and call it a day. 

 There's no way around it. Challenging your muscles to go beyond their limits hurts. It's the good, clean pain of the body working as it was intended, but it's still honest-to-goodness pain.

And now comes the magic. You've completed a workout which pushed you hard and delivered a half-dozen "oh my god make it stop" moments of pain. That night, someone offers you a slice of cake after dinner.




Just as the pilgrim with hooks in his skin becomes even more devoted to the temple, I assert that the amount of pain you suffered in your workout will bind you more tightly to your nutrition plan than anything else. More than a big cardio session. More than a weight watching support group. More than even your children begging you to slim down. On this day you've been through the gauntlet, felt your veins fill with fire and acid, and like the blacksmith's well-worked iron you've emerged on the other side stronger and purer than before.

The idea of sullying all that with a wedge of cake is almost repulsive. Pain has raised the stakes and prepared you to make the sacrifice of not enjoying that dessert. Pain beats cake every time.

This is why I think a program with serious muscle building but lower calorie burn will net better fat loss. The amount of pain you experience makes diet compliance much more likely. It gives you powerful mental armor against temptation. And, as we discussed staying on diet is the single biggest factor to getting a successful result.

The amount of pain you suffered in your workout will bind you more tightly to your nutrition plan than anything else. 

Factor in this power of pain when you make your fitness choices. Your body isn't a spreadsheet. You can't just add and subtract calories to get the physique you want. If it was that easy we'd all be walking around with six-packs.

Getting in shape is actually a messy goo-ball of physiology and psychology. Your state of mind will determine how strict you're going to follow your nutrition plan, and your nutrition plan is going to be the predominant factor in how your body turns out. If your workout includes the healthy, deep pain of muscle fatigue, your brain is getting the signal loud and clear; "I'm suffering for this... it must be important enough to care about and get right." That resolve will show up in the kitchen and at the table, and the results will follow.

Dig deep during those workouts. Your willingness to leap into the flames will be rewarded by the fitness gods!




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