Why “No Pain, No Gain” Makes No Sense

Oct 2, 2017

Like many people, I enjoy perusing Pinterest. When I need ideas for anything involving making or decorating, it’s the first website I go to. However, there is one corner of the Pinterest universe I tend to shy away from, and that is the pins dedicated to fitnessalso known as the land of “no pain, no pain.”

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 the source:

  • “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. Many of my clients come in with the belief that a workout is useless if they don’t sweat profusely and experience miserable soreness 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.

So let’s dispel some common myths about pain, soreness, sweat, fatigue, and workout intensity once and for all.

A woman wearing athletic shorts and a sports bra flipping a very large tire

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

Discomfort or “feeling the burn” can be a common occurrence during exercise, especially when you’re learning something new or if you’re coming off of a break from intentional movement. While it would be nice if every workout felt like sunshine and rainbows, it often does take challenging yourself to get faster, stronger, etc.

But when what you’re feeling moves beyond discomfort to the realm of pain, that may be cause for concern. If you feel pain while exercising, I recommend that you immediately stop what you’re doing unless you’re under the supervision of a medical professional who has indicated otherwise. Sharp or sudden pains, swelling, or any strange sensations happening in your joints or ligaments are indicators that you should take a break from that movement until you can learn more about what is causing the pain.

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. 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 he should have known better.

We experience muscle soreness when our bodies are repairing damage, known as “microtears,” to our muscles. While muscle damage may sound scary, our body jumps into action to repair the micro tears, and that’s actually what allows our muscles to get stronger and bigger. 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).

How we experience soreness has a genetic component—some people experience high levels of soreness and others rarely notice any soreness. Additionally, certain circumstances cause more microtearing in our muscles than others, such as starting a new program or doing a movement you’ve never done before.

Thankfully, 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.

Don’t forget that 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 soreness 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.

A woman seen from the back with one hand on the back of her head and the other rubbing her neck in discomfort

Replace “Sweat Is Just Fat Crying” with “Sweat Levels Are Highly Variable and You Shouldn’t Read Into Them”

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. Further, it’s a common misconception that the more you sweat, the more calories your burn.

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. For me, personally, when I do metabolic conditioning or high-intensity interval training, I tend to sweat a lot. ​But when I’m weightlifting or doing aerials, 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 (if that’s something you care about).

Replace “No Days Off” With “Listen to Your Body So You Know When to Back Off and Recover”

Learning to train effectively means learning the difference between when it would be better to push yourself and when it would be better to hold back. 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 when you’re exercising regularly. 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 likely going too hard. 

When you are overly fatigued, you can and should take days off. At a bare minimum, I would recommend taking at least one day off from exercise per week, and most people would benefit from more than that. Adequate recovery is essential for progress, and overtraining will have negative effects on both your physical and mental health.

I’m not suggesting you forego exercise every time you feel a slight cold coming on or you get a little less sleep. But there are times, especially when you’re already not feeling so hot, that a different activity would be more restorative than exercise. So do your best to listen to your body and find the training volume that works for you and your lifestyle at any given time.

A black woman resting in bed on a pillow, wearing a flannel shirt with headphones on

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, but messaging from our toxic diet and wellness culture can make those messages hard to hear. 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 try to listen in to what your body is telling you. “No pain, no gain” just isn’t worth it.

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