No Pain No Gain? No Thanks

Change your no pain no gain mindset

No pain no gain. A phrase screamed by overzealous high school football coaches around the country. This idea has become so common that many of us truly believe if we aren’t suffering in some way, then we aren’t doing it right. If it doesn’t hurt, then you’re not pushing hard enough.

But let’s take a step back from the followers who have this phrase tattooed on their arm as their mantra. Let’s instead do what we do best here and take an intelligent approach. Does this catchphrase really make sense? And if so, is there an effective way to use it?

Motivational Tool or Harmful Philosophy?

Let’s be clear that the phrase No Pain No Gain is not the problem. The problem is in the mindset.

There are typically two types of people who use this phrase and they both have different reasons for it.

First there are those that simply store it in their bag of motivational tools along with other popular phrases like “Excuses don’t burn calories”, “You can only fail if you quit”, and “Get the hell out of bed what am I doing oh god why am I so tired all the time?”

To these people, No Pain No Gain is a little extra push telling them to work harder. To them it means that exercise is not easy and neither is reaching your goals. Becoming fit, strong, fast, awesome, etc. almost always takes some sort of sacrifice, and if you are not willing to make that sacrifice, you’re not going to see the results you want. True. These people are not the problem.

The problem is the other group of people who take the phrase No Pain No Gain literally. These people have established the mindset that those who don’t work through pain are somehow weaker. They believe that it is impossible to progress at something without experiencing some sort of pain.

This type of philosophy creates a culture that is often unwillingly imposed on others. That culture is not only harmful, but also based on zero actual facts. Don’t bother telling these people that you’ve been progressing at your fitness goals for years without ever thinking to yourself, “Hm, I really feel like I should be hurting more.”

When we allow this mindset to evade our fitness culture, it sets a terrible example for those that follow us. There are plenty of ways to motivate someone without taking an overused catchphrase literally and encouraging that person to crush themselves on a regular basis.

So now that you’ve heard my rant, let’s go into a little more detail as far as why this phrase doesn’t really apply to anything in the fitness world.

Muscle Soreness Does Not Indicate Muscle Growth

One of the most widely believed myths in fitness is the idea that muscle soreness correlates to muscle growth. In this completely unsubstantiated belief, if you don’t feel you muscles hurting after a hard workout, it means that it wasn’t actually hard enough. This is completely false.

In fact, after becoming acclimated to their workouts, many people do not get sore muscles afterwards and they will continue to not get sore as long as they are consistently working the same muscle groups. Muscle growth can be measured by an increase in size or in strength. Soreness has nothing to do with it. In this case, it is very possible for the gain to come without the pain.

Difference Between Pain and Injury

There is a saying in sports that there is a difference between playing hurt and playing injured. That is to say, everyone who plays a sport will at some point get banged up, get sore, get bruised, etc. Those are things that you can play through without any substantial increased risk

An injury is not something that you play through, and that same rule holds true in the fitness world. Having sore muscles is one thing. Having an aggravated, strained, or torn muscle or joint is another thing entirely.

If you don’t workout under these conditions, it doesn’t mean that you’re a wimp; it means that’s you’re smart enough to recognize that you need to rest your body and recover from your injury. You should never be performing exercises that have a high likelihood of injuring or re-injuring you just because you think that you should push harder.

Progress Should Be Assessed Systematically, Not on a “Pain Scale”

The best way to measure progress towards your goals is to use variables that are quantifiable. Strength gain, weight gain or loss, faster times, further jumps, etc. can all be systematically measured in some way. Pain is not a valid way to measure progress.

Instead of worrying about whether or not you’re hurting enough, try looking at the actual progress you’re making. Are you continuing to lift more weight? Is it getting easier and easier to run that mile? Then you are making progress, regardless of how sore you are.

Let’s Put This All Together

By this point it should be clear that No Pain ≠ No Gain. At its root, what the phrase is really trying to say is “No Effort No Gain”, something I wholeheartedly agree with but doesn’t exactly have the same ring to it. Don’t take this article as an excuse to not work hard, sacrifice, and put in the effort necessary to see progress.

So next time you see a coach, trainer, or gym buddy guilting someone into thinking that they are not pushing hard enough when they are clearly hurt, call that person out for what they are: a bad motivator. Time to find a new catchphrase.


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