'No Pain, No Gain' is Stupid
'No pain, no gain, bro!'
'Yeah, man, you've gotta make it hurt!'
Yeah, about that... no.
There are alot of stupid things that people say in the world of strength, fitness and performance, but this one has to be in the top three.
At first it makes sense to us intrinsically. It seems logical to think that we need to push ourselves to the point that it hurts for us to gain anything from our efforts. It feels empowering to push through that point of pain and finish your workout.
But what you are really doing with this mindset is sabotaging your own progress and setting yourself back a long way.
There is a difference between pain and discomfort
The difference between pain and discomfort is the reason that 'no pain, no gain' is a rubbish phrase that has no business in the minds of intelligent coaches and athletes.
Discomfort is good. Discomfort is what most people mean when they use this phrase, and they usually mean it with good intentions. When you are deep into a set of squats and you have three reps to go that you know you can get done, but you also know it is going to take almost all the effort you have left in the tank, that is discomfort. When you are nine kilometres into that 10k and the legs are heavy, the sweat is falling down into your eyes, and you are just minutes away from a PB you know you can get so you keep pushing, that is discomfort.
Discomfort is good. We achieve things in training and in life by seeking out productive discomfort and spending time in its embrace. It is how we grow and adapt.
Pain, on the other hand, is a different thing entirely.
An athlete who feels a stinging pinch in their shoulder while doing dips but pushes through because they 'know' pain is a good thing and then tears their labrum and are now up for shoulder surgery, that is pain. A client whose lower back is on fire but has a 'trainer' yelling in their ear pushes through their set of deadlifts and then gets laid up in bed for a week because their lower back hurts too much to move, that is pain. And someone who feels disappointed the day they don't wake up sore from the previous day's workout, so they smash out another massive session even though it is their rest day, and continually repeat this until they feel sore, and ends up with such a battered body that they have injuries and conditions that will restrict their training and lifestyle for years, that is pain.
We need to learn how to distinguish between the two
It is one thing to point out that there is a difference between pain and discomfort but it is a different thing entirely to actually distinguish the difference, especially in the heat of a big workout.
You (and your athletes, if you are a coach) need to understand that pain is something to be used as a warning that something is about to go drastically wrong. On the flipside of this is discomfort, which is something that we want to encourage when approached safely. The problem is that the ability to tell the difference comes mostly from experience.
With that in mind, there are a few general rules that I suggest we teach and apply to ourselves and our athletes. These will not apply in every single situation and some cases may be very far from the mark, but as general rules they apply a vast majority of the time.
Is it pain or discomfort?
1. Is it isolated or general?
If the uncomfortable feeling is isolated to a specific joint or easily identifiable 'spot' then it is most likely pain. Examples include knee pain, sharp pain in a specific point of a muscle when the rest of the muscle feels fine, a grind or pinch in a joint, or a 'tightness' suddenly taking hold of one muscle, especially if it is only on one side of the body.
A more general uncomfortable feeling, like the legs feeling sore all over during a heavy lower body session, the shoulders feeling puffed up and tired during a session with lots of overhead presses, or the entire core feeling weak after a series of ab rollouts, is a better indication that you are simply working hard and getting the job done.
2. Did it come on suddenly or gradually?
Sudden pain that comes on sharply over the space or one or two reps, especially if it is isolated, is usually a sign of something going wrong. Examples include a shoulder or elbow suddenly feeling uncomfortable six reps into a set of bench press, or one hamstring feeling 'crampy' or tight after the fourth high speed run of the day when the three reps beforehand felt great.
A gradual building of discomfort is what should happen when working effectively. A set of bench press should gradually go from strong and comfortable to the point where it takes all your efforts to push the last few reps out. High speed running involves high intensities and so can leave athletes feeling drained after their efforts, but should not be feeling tight, sore or in any way restricted during their runs.
The basic rule here is that while we all have different levels of resilience and different fatigue points during each type of training or lift, sudden and sharp discomfort is a red flag. Discomfort is a building sensation, not something that rushes up on you.
3. What does your gut feeling say?
This may sound a bit fluffy, but a vast majority of the time that an athlete pushes through pain and then injures themselves further, they knew something way amiss. Even the most inexperienced athlete is usually attuned to their body enough to have an uneasy feeling that something is not right. The conversation I have had with many athletes who had injuries in the past often has them saying, 'it felt like it wasn't quite right, but I wasn't sure and I thought I might be able to push through it so I just kept going'.
If it feels like you could push through it, it probably means you shouldn't. The human body is a complex and fascinating organism, and so often we have days in the gym or on the field where something isn't working or feeling right and we know that if we stop pushing it into that same position then it will be fine the next day, but we feel like we can be heroes and push past it.
That is where the real problems come into play. If you gut says it isn't right, get it checked out.
We need to stop glorifying stupidity
Coaches and athletes all need to stop pushing this idea that pushing yourself to your absolute limit in every workout is necessary. This leads to inexperienced athletes with poor or still-developing movement mechanics putting themselves in vulnerable positions so many times and with such force that injury is inevitable, and it pushes even experienced athletes to move like a novice, usually still using loads and intensities of an experienced lifter. You can probably guess where that scenario ends up.
Of course there is a time to really push it.
Of course it is necessary to find out limits and strive to push them further.
Of course we need to work hard and get uncomfortable to make genuine progress.
But thinking that we need to push ourselves to the point of shaking, spewing, or injury on every exercise and every workout is a great way to sabotage any chance you have of a strong and healthy life or sporting career.
Remember, discomfort is necessary. Pain is stupid.