Why “No Pain, No Gain” Makes No Sense

Oct 2, 2017

Like many people, I enjoy perusing Pinterest and looking at the array of tasty recipes, DIY Halloween costumes, home décor, craft ideas, and other fun stuff. When I need ideas for anything involving making or decorating, it’s the first website I go to. I mean, who doesn’t want to make a planter out of an old tire, create tape art on canvases, or learn to cook up those cinnamon sugar nuts that always smell so amazing in the mall? Full disclosure: I have done all of those things thanks to Pinterest.

However, there is one corner of the Pinterest universe I tend to shy away from, and that is the pins dedicated to fitness – also known as the land of “no pain, no pain” Considering that I am a wellness coach, that probably sounds counterintuitive, but let me explain.

Besides the thousands of workouts captioned with dubious health and physique claims in pretty fonts, Pinterest is also filled with page after page of “motivational” fitness phrases and quotes. Unfortunately, many of these phrases and quotes are more misleading than motivating.

Here are some examples straight from Pinterest:

  • “No Days Off”
  • “Pain Is Just Weakness Leaving Your Body”
  • “Better Sore Than Sorry”
  • “Push Yourself To The Last Rep, Then Do One More Just To Prove You Can”
  • “Make Muscles, Not Excuses”
  • “Don’t Stop When You’re Tired, Stop When You’re Done”
  • “Sweat Is Just Fat Crying”

With the rise of Crossfit culture, neighborhood boot camps, and extreme competitions like Spartan Race and Tough Mudder, the hardcore “no pain, no gain” attitude has become pervasive in the fitness scene. Things have gotten so bad that my clients usually come in assuming that their workout was useless if they didn’t sweat profusely during it and get really sore the next day. One of my clients even confided in me that she used to have a personal trainer who worked her so hard she would throw up during and after sessions. Ouch. Imagine thinking that the only way to get a good workout is to be on the edge of puking.

An athletic woman with a thigh tattoo is flipping a tire and plagued by her "no pain, no gain" attitude

There are many misconceptions about what makes a “good” workout, and professionals within the industry are helping to perpetuate those misconceptions. This has led some people to push themselves beyond their limits, putting themselves at high risk of unnecessary exhaustion and even injury. It’s time to set the record straight on just how much blood, sweat, and tears are required to get in a good workout while remaining injury-free (and it’s a lot less than you likely think). To do that, let’s talk about common myths about pain, soreness, sweat, fatigue, and intensity.

Replace “Pain Is Just Weakness Leaving Your Body”
With “Real Pain During Exercise Is Cause For Concern”

Mild discomfort is a standard part of the exercise process. While it would be nice if every workout felt like sunshine and rainbows, in order to see results, working our muscles and heart has to be appropriately challenging. Sometimes that might mean you feel a warm, even burning sensation during certain exercises, and that’s okay. I always “feel the burn” during lying hamstring curls, for example.

What you should not feel during exercise is actual pain. “No pain, no gain” is a blatant lie. If you feel real pain while exercising, IMMEDIATELY stop what you’re doing. Always listen to your body and beware of sharp or sudden pains, swelling, or any really strange feelings happening in your joints or ligaments. If something feels like it’s been tweaked while you are exercising, that is your body trying to tell you something. The best thing you can do is stop that exercise for the day as well as any other exercises that cause a similar unnatural sensation, and monitor the pain going forward. Additionally, if you experience severe pain, make sure to speak with your doctor, physical therapist, or coach.

Replace “Better Sore Than Sorry”
With “While Soreness Has Merit, Too Much Of It Is A Bad Thing” 

I once had a personal trainer who worked me so hard in our first session that the next morning I honestly thought I might need to go to the hospital. It was incredibly difficult to lower myself to a seated position (I literally had to grasp things for help), and I was walking up stairs sideways for days. If you hear that story and think, “Wow! Must have been a great workout!” then we need to have a chat. Debilitating soreness is never a good thing, and the presence of soreness is a crappy indicator of muscle growth and adaptation. My trainer pushed me far beyond my ability levels, and that was a mistake.

We experience muscle soreness when our bodies are repairing damage to our muscles, and in particular, soreness is associated with the eccentric part of movements. While muscle damage may sound scary, it’s actually a good thing. Muscle damage comes in the form of “microtears” in our muscles. When our muscles experience these microtears, our bodies work to repair the tears and rebuild our muscles, which causes our muscles to grow bigger and stronger. The process of rebuilding our muscles can sometimes cause soreness immediately after or a day or two after a workout (called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or “DOMS”).

Certain circumstances cause more microtearing in our muscles than others. For example, when you start a new program, return to exercise after a break, or even start doing a certain kind of movement you haven’t done in awhile, you will likely experience increased soreness. As our muscles get stronger and more familiar with certain exercises, the repair process is usually less intense. When that happens, we may feel only a little soreness or none at all. It doesn’t mean your workout was bad or that you didn’t push yourself hard enough—it means that your body is adapting to the demands you’re placing on it.

Finally, how we experience soreness has a genetic component—some people get really sore, and others rarely ever experience soreness. Remember, the more sore you are, the more difficult your next workout will be to complete. You do not want to push yourself so hard in your workouts that it limits your ability to train and move the rest of the week. While a moderate level of soreness is fine, pushing yourself past your limits so that you can barely lower yourself to sit on the toilet is not recommended.

Replace “Sweat Is Just Fat Crying”
​With “Sweat Levels Are Highly Variable And You Shouldn’t Read Into Them”

A woman is running with visible sweat on her tank top and bodyAs it turns out, in order to have a good workout it is not a requirement that you be so slick with sweat you resemble a baby seal. Like soreness, sweatiness isn’t a great indicator of how good your workout was. Sweat production is very individual in nature, and it can vary greatly based on your genetics. How much you sweat is determined by a range of factors, including hydration, humidity level, the specific activity you’re doing, and your overall level of fitness.

It’s a common misconception that the more you sweat the more calories you burn. If that were true, we could all be a size 2 if we just dedicated ourselves to Bikram Yoga and spending time in the sauna.

​For me, personally, when I do metabolic conditioning or high-intensity interval training, I tend to sweat a lot. ​But when I’m in the gym doing pure strength training sessions (which make up the bulk of my activity), I often don’t sweat much at all. No matter how much or how little you’re sweating, there’s likely nothing to be concerned about, and there are far better indicators of how hard you’re working.

Replace “No Days Off”
​With “Listen To Your Body So You Know When To Back Off And Recover”

Learning to train effectively means learning when you should push yourself and when you should hold back. What I can tell you for sure is that a “no days off” attitude is a one-way ticket to injuries and setbacks. At a bare minimum, you should be taking at least one day off from intense exercise per week. If you want to do some restorative yoga or walking on that day off, that’s fine, but any exercise you do should be relaxing in nature. Most women who enjoy strength training do well with 2-5 sessions per week. Listen to your body and find the training volume that works best for you and your lifestyle.

There is no need to take every set to failure. Your workouts should leave you invigorated for the most part, not annihilated. In fact, most of the time your body should feel pretty good. If you’re feeling beat up and crappy all the time, or if a single workout leaves you fatigued for days on end, you are pushing yourself too hard. ​When you are overly fatigued, you can and should take days off. Adequate recovery is essential for progress, and overtraining will have negative effects on both your physical and mental health.

A woman appears to be in pain as she is rubbing her temple and her neck, contemplating her "no pain, no gain" mentality

I’m not suggesting you forego exercise every time you feel a slight cold coming on or you get a little less sleep. Oftentimes in those situations exercise can make you feel better. One way to test this is to go to the gym and do your usual warm-up. If after your warm-up your head is in the game and you’re feeling ready to take on the workout, go for it. But if you’re still feeling under the weather after your warm-up, that’s a sign that you should take it easy that day. If you do decide to work out, go light, and don’t stay too long before calling it a day. Always err on the side of caution.

Treat Your Body With The Respect It Deserves

There is a time and place for hardcore and extreme exercise, but it is not every single day or even every week for the average person. You do not need to push it to 100 every time you exercise, and if you continue to do so, eventually you’ll run out of gas.

Our bodies are remarkably good at letting us know what they need. Don’t ignore your own needs by falling prey to the high-risk, “motivational” attitudes that are so pervasive in fitness right now. Take stock of your pain, soreness, and fatigue, and listen to what your body is trying to tell you. “No pain, no gain” just isn’t worth it.

Three women of different sizes and heights are flexing and smiling while wearing sweaty workout gear

Do you need to figure out the right level of exercise intensity for your unique life? Contact me for coaching opportunities.

Woman running bleachers

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