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The Pain-Cave is not always the best Cave

Updated: Apr 23, 2019

If you're approaching physical skill work the same way you would any other workout, there's a better way.

I’m not sure where I first heard the term "pain cave", but for a long time I knew going there meant I was going to “work out”-to really workout, to put in effort in pursuit of success. I think of the ‘pain cave’ as where the dark place of the mind meets the end-range of physical ability. It could look like the last heavy back squat in a set of 10 reps, sprinting at the end of a half marathon to the finish, getting rocked in the boxing ring but still staying standing, etc. The “pain cave" means suffering but the ability to withstand it is oftentimes equated with glory and success.

My ability to withstand the pain cave was something forged in me in the pits of high school cross country and soccer. In both sports, my application of effort was rewarded. In soccer, I wasn’t the most skilled player, but I could always make up for it by amplifying my effort. If the soccer ball got stolen from me, I sprinted after it until I was red in the face. In cross country, I knew no form. I mean- running “form”? What even is that? That can’t possibly exist- I continued hitting personal records while my flat blood blister worn toes protested. 

This made for an easy transition into the Crossfit world, where those who could suffer the longest were rewarded the highest honour, and if there was one thing I knew how to do, it was how to hang out in the pain-cave and suffer willingly. I put in the effort because I knew physical effort meant success and effort is certainly useful. For some things. I hadn’t considered that there were other "caves ” to work out in until I started to rock climb. (Insert rock climbing in caves joke, here)

There was a particular day where a friend watched me struggle and sweat as I over-gripped the small plastic holds on the rough artificial walls of a local climbing gym. I grunted and mouth breathed while trying to manifest destiny the wall. In that moment, something possessed him to say,“Climbing is a lazy sport.” I scoffed as I looked over his thin body, spindly arms, and strong hands. He explained, “climbing is about finding the easiest possible way up a route.” EASY?!?!?! The word shook me to my core but it was the first seed of understanding that physical effort (or the pain cave) might only take me so far. What might take me further was learning the easiest way to do something- i.e movement efficiency. A labrum tear in my shoulder told me the same thing a few months later.

When I think of movement efficiency, I think of motor control and skill, which, at the highest level looks like any performer making complex forms or movements look simple.

I always thought those possessing ease and efficiency in movement (gymnasts, martial artists, etc) got to where they were via superior genes and training the moment they came out of their mother’s womb, but my climbing friend seemed to be declaring that I was still capable of building ease and efficiency even without overtly superior genes and years of training. Then came the question of, “…but, how?”

When it comes to learning new skills, there are countless websites, training centres, coaching methodologies that claim they’ve found THE PINNACLE BEST HOLIEST ROUTE TO “X”.

“X” could be a handstand, an olympic lift, a martial arts routine, or even something like injury prevention, and while there are certainly good and bad programs out there, even if you manage to find the pinnacle best holiest program, you’ll only get so far if you try to access it through the pain cave because you cannot manifest a new skill with a pain-cave mindset.

A new skill is on the other side of a different kind of cave. The Mindfulness Cave. Or mindfulness, or a spirit of mindfulness-whatever you'd like to call it. I like to think of it as a cave.

Gearing up to workout in the Mindfulness Cave is like setting up to study for your favourite subject, practicing an enjoyable but difficult piece of music or settling into a work project with an exciting end goal. Before you do any of those things, you don’t blast the dubstep or sniff your smelling salts; you get ready for attentive, productive, non-judgemental work. The mindfulness cave requires a different kind of intensity; one where you’re thinking through the next step and setting yourself up properly. 

 Here are three mindset qualities of the Mindfulness Cave:

1. Light: The work is done with a sense of “lightness” and “in the moment-ness”. If you miss something, forget something, start shaking and getting impatient, it’s time to take a break, listen to some tunes, and come back to it when you’re ready.

2. Non-judgemental: If something doesn’t feel like it’s working or you don’t understand how your body should be moving in a particular exercise, it can be easy to get frustrated, to compare yourself, to doubt the programming (and go back to looking for a quick fix), but instead, a good question to ask is “why is this difficult for me right now?” Most of the time, the honest answer is that you’re working at a level your body isn’t prepared for, you haven’t had enough sleep for the last 2 weeks, you haven’t eaten enough that day, or that you need some additional clarification from your coach on why you’re doing what you’re doing or what needs to happen with a specific movement or progression.

3. Ego-checking: Ego can be great for fighting through the pain cave, but not the best when it comes to building a new skill because it’s usually rushing us to get to the next level, the more advanced progression or the next weight, when there may still be room to better master earlier movement progressions. This is where a good coach can come in and help you get a clearer sense of where you’re really at with a particular skill and encourage you to either ramp up or slow down.

When you feel the ego start to creep in and comment on what you’re doing, bring yourself back to your long-term goal and why what you're doing now is worth it in the long run

Practical application of the mindfulness cave.

1. Nail the proper starting position: Don’t rush the start. Even if the movement seems ridiculously simple, setting up the proper way means that you’re in position to perform the next piece right. Look at everything, from top to bottom, and ask, where should my hands be, feet, spine, etc. What’s tightening? What’s staying loose and light? Where is my weight sitting now? Where will it need to go? This was a big thing that kept coming up for me during the GMB apprenticeship and it's stayed with me since then.

2. Embracing horizontal progress: When working on any complex skill, oftentimes progress isn’t linear. Let’s say you’re working on a handstand. This is how we often want it to go (linear progress)

Month 1: I kick up to a wall.

Month 2: I can now kick up on the floor

Month 3: I can now hold my handstand on the floor for :30

Month 4: now I can walk upside down.

This is how it usually goes (horizontal progress)...

Month 1: I learn how to kick up to a handstand against a wall. I sort of just launch my legs up, but I’m upside down!!!…Now what? 

Month 2: I learn placing my hands one way is much more efficient than placing my hands a different way and I finally feel what my shoulders need to be doing (shoulders to ears, pushing the floor away)

Month 3: I learn how to point my toes and squeeze my butt. Slowly my feet float away from the wall

Month 4: I learn how to kick up into a handstand without the wall but everything else has gone to shit. I’ve forgot proper shoulder and hand positioning, but I am learning how my weight needs to shift in my hands.

These little shifts in understanding, forgetting and re-understanding are important to note because if we miss them we may not think we’re progressing at all. In reality, these little shifts are the building blocks of long-term skill development.

3. Using a timer instead of a rep scheme: When I’m working on a new skill, I’ll set a timer for 20-30 minutes (10 if I’m tired) and pick 2-3 movement progressions to work on. I allow myself the freedom to order these movements however I want and take breaks as needed. Setting a timer forces you to better assess your current level, take rest based on how you feel that particular day, and relieves the pressure of having to hit a certain number of reps or sets, which, oftentimes, can become mindless.

If the Pain Cave is where the dark place of the mind meets the end-range of physical ability,

then the mindfulness cave is where the pursuit of a long term goal meets an honest assessment of your current level.