No Pain, No Gain: Myth or Motto?

Updated: Oct 24, 2020

“No pain, no gain.” “Pain is just weakness leaving the body.” “The pain you feel today is the strength you will feel tomorrow.” I see this type of “motivational” quote adorning gym walls, locker rooms, coaches’ offices, and Instagram pages all the time. But this mindset is a myth at best, and actually dangerous at worst. Why? Well, the problem is multifaceted.

It all begins with our definition of the word pain. As an athletic trainer, I hear “this hurts” or “I stopped because it was too painful” fairly often. A key component of my job here is to go deeper on this with my client to understand exactly what they are experiencing. When we start to add other words to their vocabulary to better describe what their body is feeling, they often land on things like muscle soreness, fatigue, discomfort, tightness, anticipation and fear of pain, and sometimes, of course, true pain.

Understanding the lens that we see pain through, is an important first step to take. Experience and interpretation can vary greatly from person to person. An elite sprinter, who has been taught that his body is a fine-tuned machine, may be sensitive to anything that feels slightly “off,” and pull himself from a training session to recover, while a rugby player, who has been taught to play through anything, may ask to be wrapped and put back into a game even with a visible divot in her quad from a strained muscle. A freshman college athlete, who has never experienced a Division I preseason before, may truly believe that he has somehow “pulled” both his hamstrings and needs to see a doctor, while the senior athlete, although still incredibly fatigued and sore, knows that this is nothing some foam rolling and ice baths can’t fix.

A person who has never experienced a back injury may note some discomfort after a strenuous training session, and do a little extra stretching. On the other hand, someone who has a history of herniated discs may experience the same sensation, and begin a spiral of worry, anxiety, and fear as they wonder if a re-injury has occurred that will leave them in chronic pain. All of these are examples of people experiencing a physical sensation, and then interpreting it through the lens of their own experience and beliefs. Most of us lie somewhere in between.

So what is “No Pain, No Gain” all about? I think what we really mean is, “It never gets easier, you just get better.”

The discomfort during and after intense training is what all of those motivational quotes are actually referring to. If all of our training sessions were easy, we wouldn’t improve in strength or performance. This is what trained athletes often refer to as, “good soreness,” and it’s the type of pain that’s worn as a badge of pride. If you’re just beginning a new fitness routine or new sport, like the freshman athlete I mentioned above, it might be hard to differentiate this from an injury. Some questions you can ask yourself include: Do I feel this sensation on both sides of my body? (both hamstrings or both quads for example - it’s highly unlikely that you have sustained the same injury to both legs).