(No) Pain, (No) Gain! Really….

Hello all and welcome to my inaugural blog post. Today I’ll share with you my humble opinion on the old gym adage of no pain, no gain.

To set the scene a little, this is my first blog and  I’ve been trying to get my head around how best to start  this piece for well over a week and after many false starts I think I’ve finally found a perspective I’m happy with. I think learning to write these blogs and then progressing to writing them proficiently and concisely can take from the skills and patience needed to learn technically difficult lifts and movements within the gym. In the same way that we may break down the components of a press up or a clean to understand how to perform the complete movement well, we can deconstruct our taken topic (in this case no pain, no gain) and try to understand each component separately before putting it back together to share our balanced and well considered conclusion.


With this in mind, let us begin with component one – (No) Pain!

Pain is a highly subjective and often emotive sensation. For the purposes of this piece we will keep it fairly simple but for a more scientific, concise overview, the following article may be of interest.

We will all experience pain both physically and mentally many times over the course of our lives. It is highly unusual that any of us really enjoy this feeling, so why on earth would we subject ourselves to it through considerable effort within the gym? I guess the real questions to ask ourselves are what type of pain is it we’re experiencing and why?

Let’s use an old client and friend of mine to illustrate. Meet Bob, Bob hasn’t done any exercise for over five years, has indulged fairly heavily in poor quality food and excessive alcohol and smokes ten cigarettes a day. He is carrying 30% more body mass than is ideal and is mentally not a in a great place. Bobs first session in the gym is full of ‘pain’, pain in his lungs when he uses the rower, pain in his legs when he squats and some mental pain in the form of anxiety over how difficult he’s finding it and over how he imagines himself to look.  All of these manifestations of pain are unpleasant in the short term but often fairly quickly subside and become less acute with appropriate, progressive and consistent training.  We know the reasons for the feelings of pain and accept that they can be mostly negated with some hard work and persistence and may even be replaced with positive emotions. These can range from complete elation to inner calm in the glowing aftermath of a good training session.

Fast forward 6 months and Bob is a new man. He feels great, has dropped 20% of his body mass and rather than dreading ‘the pain’ of training, looks forward to it. He has greatly improved mobility and is now chasing numbers on his big lifts, enter the deadlift!  Bob, like millions of guys and girls around the world wants to increase his lifts but like many others, there is a correlation between an increase in weights lifted and an increase in ego (I’ll explore this concept further in a future blog). The ego takes over, he lifts too heavy and bang…. severe back pain and an end to any immediate training. Now this is a completely different pain, not manageable temporary pain but acute pain caused by damage to the body running the risk of becoming long term chronic pain if not managed appropriately. There’s a lesson here!


Component two – (No) Gain!

Gains, or Gainz if you’re of a certain generational mould, can take many forms. When we traditionally think of gains we think more muscle, improved speed or any other improvements to our physical capabilities. Whilst this is absolutely true and fundamentally the core ethic of training athletes, when it comes to everyday life and those of us not aspiring to be at the next Olympics it can take many different forms, and not all of them are physical.

If we’re training to run a marathon, we’ll work on cardiovascular endurance and the ability to stay injury free; if we’re training to enter a strong man competition then we’ll undertake heavy resistance training and the ability to compete whilst staying injury free. In essence, we train to be fit for purpose and a consistent element to this is to try and stay as free from injury as possible.  My personal take on this is that staying injury free is not exclusive to the physical, in the same way we may pick up nocks to our bodies; the same can be said of our minds in the form of confidence, or lack of.

Let’s use Bob as our example once again. When he started training he was mentally injured, he had no confidence in his body image, suffered from anxiety over the way he looked in a t-shirt and felt less of a father to his 10-year-old daughter due to his inability to go swimming with her. To my understanding these can be viewed as temporary injuries to the mind; much like a sprained ankle is to the body and in many cases can be remedied by training to improve our confidence. Case in point, after 6 months of training not only was Bob feeling good about his body image, he was sufficiently mentally free of injury that he took his daughter on a beach holiday  and spent most of it in just his swimmers playing with her in the sea.  In this case we obviously have some physical improvements in body composition however more prominent are the gains to his mental health. He stopped smoking and now eats and drinks in a far healthier fashion but most fundamentally of all he’s probably gained 10 years of life and 10 years of being a father and possibly a grandfather.

Now that my friends, to any generation and in any language is some serious Gainz!


Putting the pieces together: No Pain – No Gain

Having fairly briefly broken down what we mean by ‘pain’ and ‘gain’, are we any closer to a satisfactory conclusion as to whether we agree? Based upon what we’ve established (which is merely scratching the surface, people far wiser than I have written Doctorate theses on the subject) I still find it hard to give a straight answer. After a little further deliberation, I think I’ve found a very simple conclusion I can agree with.

Does the gain justify the pain?

Or, put another way, what am I trying to achieve (goal), what are the rewards (benefits), and do they outweigh the risks (risk)?

There is however a caveat; We all have different motivations for training and our individual view on risk vs benefits may differ greatly, however, if you ask yourself these questions and give yourself honest answers, without being consumed by ego then most of us will come to the same conclusions 9 times out of 10.

Let me give you a few examples with my verdict on whether ‘no pain, no gain’ applies to each to try and illustrate my personal perspective on our topic.

The 20-year-old aspiring Olympic rower:

Goal: Represent GB at the next Olympic games

Benefits: Extreme level of strength and conditioning, huge sense of personal achievement, high degree of recognition within sporting community and beyond, possibility of winning an Olympic medal, ability to inspire others.

Risks: Possibility of failure to win a medal or even make the squad leading to low self-esteem or depression, physical or mental injury/burnout due to extreme training schedule, highly limited social life due to high demands of training, torn hands from rowing.

Conclusion: Medium risk, high reward. ‘No pain no gain’ 100% appropriate to my mind.


The 50-year-old former heavy weight boxing champion:

Goal: Recapture the heavyweight title and all the fame and fortune associated with it

Benefits: Money, fame, the lure of former glory leading to increased self esteem and a feeling of sporting relevance in a new era, return to extreme levels of fitness, ability to inspire people of all ages.

Risks: Severe head trauma or death with even greater risk factor due to age, physical or mental injury/burnout due to extreme training schedule, low self esteem or depression if unable to reach desired levels of performance or fame achieved in days past.

Conclusion: High risk, high reward. ‘No pain, no gain’ very relevant but is it prudent? A very difficult call on this one given the very nature of the sport means that some pain is inevitable.


The 70-year-old recently retired office worker:

Goal: Stay active in later life to prolong participation in recreational sport

Benefits: Increased feeling of wellbeing both physically and mentally, possibility of extended lifetime, ability to enjoy a broad range of activities into later life, ability to keep up with and play with grandchildren, improved flexibility, bone density, strength and mental prowess including memory.

Risks: General risk of injury such as pulled muscles or sprained ligaments, frustration at inability to perform movements or lifts to the same level as in younger years.

Conclusion: Low risk, high reward which within this example could be translated as a little pain for a lot of gain. Unlike the 2 examples above, the degree of risk can be self-regulated and even low intensity, consistent exercise in the gym under the supervision of a good PT can yield great, life extending results.

So, there we have my humble opinion on 3 examples of whether ‘No pain, no gain’ is an appropriate mantra to live by in the gym. Do you agree with me and if not why not? Let me know by giving your opinion in the comments section below. I hope you’ve found this blog as interesting to read as I have found writing it to be.

Stay healthy and happy all,