Pain Cave: Training Yourself To Handle Extreme Discomfort in Crossfit

Crossfit training is hard. If you want to improve, you need to be able to focus and perform effectively at high intensities, when the pain really starts to dig in. Here is how to do that.

pain cave julien pineau crossfit invictus
Julien Pineau

If there’s someone who can show you how to feel less pain, it’s Julien Pineau. This guy carried 1,000lb on his back, literally felt his femurs bending — and never once thought about giving up.

Think about the last two minutes of your workout, where it’s time to crank it up a notch. Or when you’re on the Assault Bike and your legs feel like they’re about to fall off. The pain cave is the place that makes you ask yourself, “Why can’t I do this?”

It’s where you say to yourself, “You know what maybe I’ll rest for 5 seconds.” I wouldn’t expect this superpower to come overnight. But with consistency and patience, you can become the guy or gal who blows past your box rival when duty calls.

Part 1: The energy system that takes you into the pain cave

You have to keep in mind that Julien is a man of principles, not methods. He hesitates to give you the “What should I do?” If he were to give you that without the “Why” and the “How”, you wouldn’t be able to reap the full benefits of the intended stimulus.

The anaerobic threshold is the energy system that drags you into the pain cave.

male crossfit athlete kettlebell swing
Mental strength is vital for top performance

Knowing how to pace yourself is a fundamental skill that you do have to spend time working on. But if we’re talking about developing this specific energy system, you’re going to throw pacing out the door for the session.

Anaerobic threshold is typically very high effort and high intensity.

Think about 60 seconds of Max Effort on the Assault Bike. You’re going to reach a level of intensity where lactic acid builds up in the body much faster that it can be flushed away. That heavy feeling you get in your quads, where everything starts to burn, and the fan slows down.

Part 2: Principles – Low SEW

Julien talks about increasing intensity without increasing stress on the body. The formula for that is Low SEW

  • Low Skill
  • Low Eccentric
  • Low Weight Bearing
Julien Pineau crossfit coach teaches class of athletes
Julien Pineau coaching

“The lower the SEW, the higher I’m going to push the intensity.”

Metcons are not the only way to train this energy system.

If you use high skilled movements to train intensity, you’ll be limited by the movement itself before you tap into your full mental capacity. “The skill is very limited on a sled push. I know there’s not much that’s going to stop you from taking two more steps.”

“Low eccentric means I don’t go against muscle fibers. So there is no muscle breakdown, the chances of tearing, rhabdo, etc is very small.” Sidenote: This doesn’t mean that Julien never works eccentric contractions because it’s a core part of his philosophy. For this energy system, he’s looking for ridiculous contractions of the muscle.

“Low weight-bearing, I don’t go against the joints. A lot of the lifting we do is pretty taxing on the central nervous system.” When you wake up the next morning and feel your knees aching, you might be able fight through for a while. Eventually this pain is going to cause fear, which limits you from really going to that dark place.

“If there is the possibility of structural damage, then the body will signal pain. Pain is an interpretation of the brain, nothing else. If you start to associate intensity with pain, you’re training yourself to feel more pain. The lower the level of intensity is where the pain is going to start. At any intensity you will start to feel pain all the time.”

“So that means no energy is spent on eccentric. There is no grinding of the joints. There is no skill to stop you. That means I can push the intensity as high as I want. You’re going to be able to push as hard as YOU want. The body has no reason to not go a little bit further into intensity.”

“With a low SEW over time, you’ll be able to increase the rate of intensity of your workouts a little bit every workout. You won’t pay the price for it in the sense of, your knees won’t ache the next day, your back won’t be destroyed”

“If you can train at a level where there is no structural damage, then what is your excuse not to train harder the next time?”

“With LOW SEW, I can make you understand that you should push harder in every single training station. Over time you can build up to a ridiculous intensity. Then you start to look at it like DISCOMFORT.”

Part 3: Ready to try it?

We want to have a clear objective and task that solely tests if you can go from Point A to Point B. Choose something that allows you to see the finish line. You are strong enough. Just move the needle from A to B. When you start to slow down, there’s no time for 5 seconds of rest. You stay moving. One foot in front of the other.

explosive leg power
Improve your ability to operate with intensity

“My favorite tool is the sled. I can do so much more. I can drag it. I can push it as a sprint. I can put a harness with a shitload of weight and bear crawl it. I can pull it with a rope. I can do a lot of movements that allow me to hit different planes of movement and hit the weaknesses I need to hit, basically using a sled. Which every time is a low SEW. It allows me to do so much with a simple sled. SO it is by far my favorite one.”

Try one of the following options to get your feet wet. Remember, these are BALLS OUT efforts.

Rest however long you need to once the task is complete. Then do it again trying to beat or match the same intensity. Rinse and repeat for 5 rounds.

  • Workout #1: For total cals: 60 seconds Max Effort on the Assault Bike
  • Workout #2: For time: 100 ft Rope Pulls
  • Workout #3: For time: 100 ft Sled Push
  • Workout #4: For time: 50 ft Overhead Yoke Carry
  • Workout #5: For time: 50 ft Farmer’s Carry

You don’t need to do this everyday or all at once. You can start with 1-2 times per week to get your dosage in. The Invictus Strongman Program is designed by Julien specifically for this.
If you want to listen to our full conversation where we talk about things well beyond training yourself to feel less pain and handling extreme discomfort, check out the podcast episode here.


pain cave julien pineau crossfit invictus © Julien Pineau

male crossfit athlete kettlebell swing © RX'd Photography

Julien Pineau crossfit coach teaches class of athletes © Charlotte Miles

explosive leg power © RX'd Photography

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About The Author

Misbah Haque helps recreational CrossFitters improve mobility and strength using bodybuilding and gymnastics practices. He hosts a podcast called The Airborne Mind Show, where he brings some of the smartest minds in fitness together each week. For anyone looking to improve movement quality, he’s giving away a few free gifts at theairbornemind.com.

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