We’ve all heard the saying, “No pain; no gain!”

I think it’s a flawed expression. Or more accurately, it’s a misunderstood expression. The point of the expression is to encourage you to push through even when you want to quit. Maybe you’re playing ultimate. At nationals. In the finals. Tie game with 2 minutes left. Your legs feel so heavy and you just don’t know how you can keep running. That is a situation where no pain, no gain applies. 

Unfortunately people often apply it inappropriately. Like when their knee starts to hurt during the first few km of a marathon for a recreational runner, and by the 10 km mark, it hurts so much that running has become a slow hobble. This is not a “No pain, no gain” situation. In the case of joint pain, I like to replace the saying above with: “Pain? No gain.”

Is it Pain?

It is important to learn the difference between pain and exertion, and between pain and a stretch.

If you are not accustomed to exercise, when you start, you will probably feel many different sensations in your body. It can be hard to tell if it’s pain or exertion or a stretch. There are a few tells:

  • The feeling from exertion is generally in a muscle, not in the joint, and the feeling goes away shortly after you stop the exercise.
  • It may come back one or two days later, which is something we call delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Typically it diminishes and goes away in a few days, and you’ll feel it less and less with each additional workout.
  • If you feel something pulling and aren’t sure if it’s pain or a stretch, one option is to stop and see how it feels. If the sensation goes away as soon as you finish the movement, and if it doesn’t hurt later, it was probably a stretch. But just in case, next time be more gentle with the movement.
  • If you are unsure whether you are experiencing muscle soreness from exertion, the sensation of a muscle being stretched, or actual pain, ask your manual therapist or doctor.

My experience with people who have trouble distinguishing between pain, stretch, and exertion, is to reduce the difficulty, and only increase the challenge again once the exercise(s) start feeling easier.

How much exertion should you feel?

Contrary to popular belief, exercise doesn’t have to be horrible. Yes, it does have to be work, which means it shouldn’t feel easy. But there’s a lot of wiggle room between easy and horrible. Your workout shoud be somewhere in the middle. The newer you are to exercise, the closer you should aim toward the easy end of that spectrum. Look at it this way: If you make it too hard, odds are high that you won’t want to do it again, and you’ll be more likely to skip it next time, or next week, or next month. Meanwhile if you make it easier, but still hard enough that you felt like you did a little bit of work, you’ll be more likely to do it again next week, and the week after that…

Do you brush off pain because “it’s just how you move”

Some people are accustomed to being in pain and will often shrug it off, assuming it is just part of movement. If you’re a trainer, know that this person probably won’t tell you something is painful, but you may be able to see it in their reaction to the movement. A facial reaction, a jerky movement, or rubbing the area immediately after the movement can all be signs that the movement was painful. If you see that, ask about it. It may be nothing, but it may be something. 

If you’re a person who assumes movement is going to hurt and so you just push through it, I encourage you to rethink that strategy. In my experience, it’s often possible to find exercises that, when done with good form and appropriate difficulty, will not be painful, even for people who feel pain with a lot of movement.

The gym (or your workout room) is a “closed environment”, meaning you have control over everything. You control how far you’ll move, what movement you’ll do, how many times you’ll move, and whether you make a movement harder by adding weight or a band. This control lets you set the rules about how much you’re going to do. In other words, the gym is a bit of a safe space; an opportunity to work on your strength and movement in a way that suits you best.

Keep that in mind if you feel pain while doing a workout. Remember to check your form to see if that feels better, and if not, maybe less weight, fewer reps, or a different exercise would be better for you at the moment.

Exceptions to the ‘no pain’ rule

If you have pain 24/7, it is unrealistic to expect that pain to completely go away during a workout. If that’s your situation, I suggest you aim for a workout where the pain feels either the same or less than before you started. This applies both during the workout and later that day. This is the guidance I provide to my clients who have pain. 

The other exception to the no pain in the gym rule is if you have specific permission from a health care practitioner. There may be some injuries, such as tendinosis, for which your health care practitioner has told you that it is okay to work through some specific exercises even if there is pain. 

Elsbeth Vaino, is a personal trainer at Custom Strength in Ottawa, Canada.

Like what you just read?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *