An exercise instructor calls out “No Pain, No Gain” while everyone in the class groans. Is what they’re saying really true? Is my workout effective only if it hurts me? Let’s take a big picture look at what role pain has in your exercise routine and what we should be looking for as we exercise.
To lose weight, no pain is no gain:
Myth, but partial fact – Losing weight just requires burning more calories than you consume. Most workouts that burn calories are high intensity, bodyweight workouts that are tough, but don’t have to be incredibly painful. I do recommend weight loss clients to work on building muscle strength (even if it actually adds a bit of extra weight) because their metabolic rate will increase. Gaining muscle strength equals more total calories burned per workout!
To gain strength, no pain is no gain:
Fact, but partial myth – Gaining muscle strength requires you to push to fatigue. Bringing your muscles into the uncomfortable zone is sometimes perceived as pain. It is by achieving this fatigue that your body adapts and that’s where strength gains come from. But fatigue does not have to equal pain. Pain is a mechanism that warns your body to stop what it’s doing. When you reach pain, it probably means you are already fatigued and do not need to push any further.
To be an athlete, no pain is no gain:
Fact – Competitive sports, whether professional or recreational, requires intense training and some workouts which are designed to pushing your body to painful fatigue limits. Athletes enjoy pushing themselves, pushing their limits, and fighting past pain to beat their opponents. This extreme training stimulus is unique to athletes, who couldn’t compete without it. From personal experience in competitive cycling, I have never finished a race or an interval workout without experiencing appropriate and manageable pain. Remember that athletes have a training plan to work on a solid base first, and they follow a structure for the hard, painful workouts, getting plenty of rest in between them.
When stretching, pain is not gain:
Fact – stretching should not be painful. Stretching is using a mild tension which is completely bearable to encourage tight muscle fibers to relax. For exercisers working on mobilization exercises, the same rule applies.
When I am sore after a workout, that means I am gaining fitness:
Fact, but partial myth. Being sore is not required, but it’s generally a good sign when you’re progressing to a new level in your training, adding a new exercise, or approaching your regular program with increased intensity. Working our muscles causes small tears, which rebuild and grow in the rest days after a workout. As your muscles adapt to your program over time, you’ll notice your post-workout soreness decreases. This is also a good sign that your body is adapting and your strength is increasing. If you’re constantly sore, I would recommend a lighter training load that is more appropriate for your progression, and to avoid an injury from working at too high of a level.
In summary, pain is often unnecessary. It should come only in certain situations and should generally be avoided. Is that a relief for you? What, then, should we look for as a sign we have had a good workout?
Instead of pain, look for fatigue – that feeling that you could not perform another repetition properly. When using proper form, a workout should fatigue your muscles in a non-painful way, and after a day’s rest, should be ready for another workout again!