We’ve all heard the phrase ‘no pain, no gain’. And, at some stage in our life, we’ve likely said it to ourselves or heard someone recite it.
This view of pain and exercise was made famous in the 1980s with movie stars like Sylvester Stallone grinding out a gruelling fitness routine (think Rocky Balboa). However, the 1980s was 30+ years ago, and our understanding of pain and exercise prescription has come a long way since then.
But, I still hear people recite this phrase regularly, so let’s dive in to understand if this approach has any truth.
What is pain?
By definition, pain is “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with, actual or potential tissue damage”. The key here is that pain is an emotional experience.
It means that there is a lot of individuality (and we know this to be true from medical and psychological literature) in how we feel pain.
It is evident by the types of pain we can experience and the intensity of the feeling. For example, the pain you feel from a papercut differs from that of stubbing your toe, which differs again from arthritic morning stiffness.
How you experience pain is determined by multiple factors, including your mood, but that is a big topic for another time!
Purpose of exercise
We exercise to maintain or improve our fitness. We have different types of exercise, such as strength training, balance training, cardio, etc.
The type of exercise you use will change depending on the outcome you are after. It’s not to say there is no crossover between the different types. You can get out of breath when strength training to create some benefit for your heart and lungs; likewise, you can walk up a hill where the primary benefit is for your heart and lungs, but it will also challenge the strength of your leg muscles.
When it comes to ‘no pain, no gain’, the purpose of the exercise is critical to understand.
Maintain or improve
When we want to improve, we have to stress our body (or mind) slightly beyond what is currently comfortable.
When we do this, it is unpleasant, and in some instances, we want to create damage in a controlled way so that our body can respond and come back stronger.
For example, if you’re going to be able to stand from a chair with more ease, you need to improve your strength to the point where the amount of muscle power you have available is relatively more than the power required to stand from the chair.
To achieve this, you need to overload the specific muscles required for this movement. The overload will create small amounts of muscle damage and feel unpleasant, which is pain based on the definition above. So, when we want to improve, there is a controlled amount of pain involved.
However, creating a stimulus for improvement is stressful. If you exercise to the point of creating muscle damage, it will generally take 2-4 days to recover (this is why we don’t recommend heavy strength training exercise routines every day!).
It is essential to keep moving and still exercise but at a lower or maintenance intensity during this time.
There should be no pain when exercising at a relatively low intensity; it should feel comparatively easy.
The purpose of the exercise here is to prevent you from losing fitness in between the more demanding exercise sessions and continuing to move also helps you prepare for more intense workouts.
Many of us will get sufficient low-intensity exercise in our day to day lives. For example, light housework, light gardening, or a gentle walk around the block. However, if you spend most of your day sitting or have a particular goal, planning lower intensity exercise is required.
How much pain?
Now we know that the phrase no pain, no gain has some truth; we need to understand what it should feel like. Whenever I work with clients, we cover a couple of key points before starting an exercise routine or program.
- No sharp or severe pain
Exercise at an intensity that causes overload will feel uncomfortable. It is usually a build-up of fatigue, a bit of muscle burn or shortness of breath. Avoid sharp pain. If you feel a sharp stab or twang in a muscle, it is usually a sign of unwanted damage. If you experience this, you should stop.
- Expect some soreness afterwards
When we create sufficient stress, it is normal to feel some fatigue and soreness afterwards. Your muscles might ache when you move or be sore to touch for the next day or two. As a rough guide, the soreness might be a 3 out of 10, i.e. you know it’s there, but at the same time, it doesn’t disrupt your usual routine.
However, if you experience soreness greater than this, it may indicate that the exercise has been too stressful for your current fitness. It is super (super) important to feed this back to your therapist so he/she can make adjustments!
There is some truth to the saying, ‘no pain, no gain’. But, it is about applying this approach in the right way.
There is a time and a place to work hard, but it should be a small part of the bigger picture. Exercise can be relaxing and enjoyable. You don’t need to work out like Rocky everyday!
Article written by Mike Quinn, TPC’s Ops Guy