Desensitization, Fear, and Fear of Pain
Another analogy between lifting weights and psychotherapy which I want to share involves a particular therapeutic technique known as desensitization. Desensitization is frequently used in the treatment of phobias. Although there are variations in the method, in its basic form the patient is brought closer and closer to the feared object or situation, getting comfortable with each step before taking the next. By starting far enough away from the feared object or situation and moving toward it is small enough increments, the phobic person is eventually able to come in contact with that object or situation without ever becoming anxious. In the way the person is "de-sensitized."
Here is an example. Let us say we have a man who is acrophobic. A therapist might desensitize this man by taking him to a stadium with open bleachers. He would have the man take as many steps up the bleachers as possible without feeling anxiety. That could mean just looking at the bleachers, or it could mean taking several steps up. The man would go slowly, looking up and down after taking each step, and repeating this same procedure until absolutely comfortable. Then he would take one more step up, and so on, until at some time he could go all the way to the top, look down, and remain relatively comfortable. Depending on the patient's goals, he and the therapist could extend this procedure to other situations involving heights -- open hotel balconies, glass elevators, mountain outlooks, and so forth. This desensitization procedure could take a few days, a few weeks, or many months, depending on their rate of work, the severity of the phobia, and the patient's ultimate goal. The principles of the growing edge phenomena, of course, are applicable here.
There is a clear analogy between desensitization and lifting weights. The analogy becomes clearer when we use the phrase "progressive resistance exercise." In both cases there is a goal, and the method is to "sneak up on it" gradually enough that one succeeds with each progressive step. In classic analogy form:
Progressive Resistance Exercise: Weightlifting Goal
Whether it is one more step up the bleachers or five more pounds on the bar, the principle is the same.
The final analogy between lifting weights and psychotherapy which I want to draw concerns pain and the fear of pain. Psychological growth often involves emotional pain. It involves the sometimes painful process of acknowledging what one would rather avoid, and struggling with that until one reaches some degree of resolution. It is that willingness to confront and to sustain that confrontation which allows for the resolution and personal growth. Many times people avoid the confrontation out of fear of attendant pain, and thereby rob themselves of the opportunity for growth. So each time one bumps up against an issue which defines his growing edge, there is a choice to be made. The person can either stay comfortable by avoiding or can engage in a growthful way, enduring the pain. The decision is between the "growth choice" and the "fear choice." So, it is the fear of emotional pain, or "pain phobia" which is the enemy of growth.
Turning to lifting, the issue is similar. The popular phrase is, "No pain, No gain." Any veteran of the weight sports is familiar with physical pain -- the burning deep in the belly of a muscle during a hard set, the aching of a well-worked muscle hours or even days later, or the stress of getting that last inch of a deadlift up. These are the growth pains with which any serious lifter must come to terms. Any lifter who shies away from such pain is going to rob himself of most of the growth that is possible. How many would-be lifters have gotten scared of the pain, or out of an intolerance for discomfort have given up the game? I also wonder how many lifter reduce their workouts to a mere act of going through the motions without benefiting in gains because of holding themselves back from the pain zone. Again, as in psychotherapy, the pain phobia is the enemy of growth. Those who maximize their growth potential, whether in the realm of psychotherapy or the realm of lifting sports, are those who are committed enough to growth-oriented experiencing that they are willing to endure a reasonable degree of pain. They are free from the pain phobia. (I will discuss pain further in a later chapter.)
Another area of personal growth for which the weightlifting path is well suited is that of body awareness. Both the activity of lifting and the results of lifting are sources of information about one's embodied self. So, by reflecting on one's experience in lifting and by carefully observing the immediate and later results of one's lifting, much can be learned. By increasing one's body awareness, one becomes more informed and attuned, thus opposing the forces which push toward body alienation.
Body awareness is served through three sources of information. First is internal sensation. Second is touching one's body. Third is seeing one's body. Let's examine each of these in turn.
Perhaps the first glint of enhanced body awareness experienced by the beginning lifter comes from the internal sensations while lifting. As one performs a new lift or exercise the internal sensations inform as to what body parts and sub parts are called into action. So one learns from feeling the pull and and mechanical stress what muscles produce what movements. This is not the learning of the Latin names for muscles depicted by drawings of figures denuded of skin, but an experiential lesson in personal gross anatomy and biomechanics. Next time you lift, attend to the internal sensations. Feel what is taking place inside as, for example, you curl a weight. As you concentrate on those sensations you may discover what part of your biceps strains at the beginning, where the strain shifts throughout the range of motion of the exercise, and where the origin and insertion of your biceps are. Continued close observation may reveal the location of the muscles which assist the prime mover biceps. And even more subtle is the message of the stabilizing muscles which hold one's body in position such that the prime mover and its synergists are able to enact the curl.
If this stress sensation is a whisper to be listened for, the burning sensation in the muscle is a shout which cannot erupt without notice. So, as one lifts, the burn is like a swelling voice from the muscle demanding credit for doing the work. As on curls, the increasing burn leaves no mistake as to what muscle is the prime mover. The burning biceps demands attention as the main activator in the curl. In the case of some exercises the voice of stress in the muscles is difficult to localize with precision. It is in these cases that the undeniable shout of the burn is particularly important for one's growth in awareness.
A third internal sensation which informs the lifter is the muscle soreness which develops several hours after the workout. Whereas the sensations of muscle stress and muscle burn are immediately available to the lifter as he lifts, the sensation of soreness is delayed, arriving some considerable time after the lifting is over. Some of its information is redundant. For example, the sore biceps a day or two after doing curls only calls attention again to the fact that the biceps were a prime movers. This fact would already have been apparent from the burning during the execution of the curls, if not from the biceps stress as well.
But, sometimes there is new information in the delayed muscle soreness. With some exercises the stress seems to diffuse, involving so many muscles, that there is no easily identifiable prime mover. And, sometimes an exercise or lift does not produce a burn. In these cases, it is the delayed soreness which is most informative. I offer an example from when I first used chin-ups as an exercise. When I performed the chinning movement I would feel the stress in my biceps, primarily. If I did enough repetitions, I would get a strong burn in my biceps. But, to my surprise, the soreness the next day was in my lats! The delayed soreness gave me information about myself which wasn't offered through the more immediate feedback of stress and muscle burn.
I have come to anticipate muscle soreness with appreciation and excitement. The feedback which soreness gives me tells me two things. First, it tells me what muscles I worked hard, and second, it tells me that I was working at my growing edge. Both of these revelations are of value, and are used by top lifters. For instance, I remember hearing Bill Pearl say in a seminar that "Something must hurt all the time, if you are a bodybuilder." It is this soreness that gives evidence of working at the growing edge.
Muscle soreness is a self communication, a way of giving one's self information. From this feedback I have learned what muscles are involved in a particular exercise, as in my example, above. When I hear or read of an exercise which is new to me and want to try it, I use my consequent soreness as a major source of information in my evaluation of the exercise. So if I try a new triceps exercise, but develop soreness repeatedly in my shoulders, I reject that exercise (as a triceps exercise).
Muscle soreness, if attended to, can be an excellent teacher of one's own anatomy. Many times I had looked at anatomy charts and seen the location of the soleus. But translating such a drawing to my body was difficult, and my soleus remained a vague abstraction located underneath my gastocnemius. One day I worked out in a gym which had a seated calf machine. Fascinated with the novelty of this new toy, I did set after heavy set. The next day I was soleus muscles more than anything else. It was as if my embodiment were in my soleus muscles. Out of vague background, my soleus muscles emerged as a persistent figure in my internal perception. I now know exactly where they are and what their function is.
If muscle stress is the whisper of the body's inner message, and muscle burn is the sudden shout, muscle soreness is the delayed, but persistent talk. These three voices from within are valuable informants in the quest for expanded body awareness.
A second source of information about one's body and the effects of lifting is touch. One can touch one's self after an exercise and feel how turgid the affected muscles are. Touching in this way reveals the degree of pump as reflected both in size and hardness. Though more subtle to the touch, one can also feel a heated area after an exercise. Again, this "hot spot" informs the lifter as to what body part has been worked most. Just as the burn is experienced internally, the sensation of heat can be felt when the skin surface is touched immediately after the exercise.
I mentioned earlier that there are three sources which can serve to enhance body awareness. The third is seeing. For many people there is a taboo against looking carefully and really seeing. For them the implicit rule "glance, but don't see." If one is to use seeing as a path to body awareness and an escape from body alienation this taboo must be overcome. There are at least three worthwhile things to look for. One is the change in skin color following an exercise. I enjoy standing close to a mirror and looking at my shoulders and upper arms following a shoulder or upper arm exercise. I look for the bluish net-like pattern which has spread over some portion of my shoulders and upper arms. I know this to be an indication of engorgement; my veins (which are closer to the surface than arteries) and venioles are full of deoxygenated (bluish) blood.
The lifter can also look at himself in the mirror to see his pump. This is the primary purpose of the mirrors lining the walls of a bodybuilding gym. The mirrors are there for looking at one's self, to see the pump that develops during the course of a workout. By carefully observing the pump, one can learn what exercises, repetitions, and sets are optimal for its development.
The mirror is useful in observing one's self over time, as well. This time spent looking carefully at one's self is a way of getting and staying acquainted with one's body. This intimate knowing counteracts ignorance of one's self, if not self-alienation.
In the succeeding chapters of this section I will explore some specific issues which arise in the course of traversing the path of lifting weights. For now, let us consider lifting weights as a path of enlightenment though experience in the flesh. Let us see it as a path to harmony, clarity, and calm. This can be realized as one lifts with an attitude of self-respect, curiosity, and exquisite awareness.
Next . . .
Why We Lift: The Deeper Motives.