I’ve got beef with this “no pain, no gain” message that is so frequently used to convince people that they need to keep pushing through a workout. Before I start ranting, I would like to admit that, yes at one point in my life I also had this mentality and would repeat this saying in my head over and over as my body told me to stop. I also used to think fat was the devil, but I’ve come along way, OK? Don’t judge.
When I first began exercising, specifically lifting weights, I always wanted to be sore. I didn’t think I was working hard enough if I wasn’t sore afterwards. Spoiler alert! You don’t have to feel like your body got hit by a train for exercise to be effective. Yes, I do love a good burn and that feeling of faint soreness after a workout, but lack of soreness doesn’t mean your body didn’t experience a benefit from exercise.
In my opinion, our society likes to take everything to an extreme- politics, nutrition, hot dog eating contests, exercise- all of it. Can exercise be as simple as getting some movement in throughout the day rather than being sedentary? No, of course not. We feel the need to go harder. We need to push our bodies to the limits, which is why P-90X, bootcamps, Crossfit and other high intensity workouts have become extremely popular in the last decade. Am I saying this a bad thing? No, not at all. In fact, I really enjoy a sweaty, high intensity workout every now and then. However, we need to be aware of the messages we are communicating when we are expecting people to push their bodies to the limits during these types of workouts.
I used to teach bootcamp classes and absolutely loved it. I loved building relationships with my clients, watching them gain more confidence as they got stronger and positively influencing their perception of exercise. Clients often entered the facility with the expectation that they were going to get pushed to the limit, yelled at, and leave dripping with sweat “given the bootcamp culture”. Sorry, but I wasn’t a drill sergeant and I didn’t have a whistle. I definitely challenged them, but always encouraged them to listen to their bodies. If they needed to stop and take a break, then I told them to stop. I wanted people to feel good after exercising, not defeated and broken. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean people always listened, because this “no pain, no gain” mentality is so engrained and promoted in the exercise world.
Challenging yourself to work outside of your comfort zone is different than working through pain. A fast heart rate and being out of breath but still running to the finish line is different than continuing to sprint even though your knees are on fire. Finishing your last set even though your shoulder is killing you isn’t smart. It’s sometimes dangerously ignorant and it isn’t going to make you stronger. You will likely get injured at which point and you will have to take a break from that exercise for a given time, causing you to lose any progress you have made. So why do people push through this pain then?
From my experience, the “no pain no gain” mentality is most embraced when an individual is focusing on the way exercise will change their appearance. Let me just say, I don’t think there is anything wrong with exercising to alter your body composition. However, I think focusing on how exercise makes you feel is much more beneficial in the long run. If someone is exercising because they know it makes them feel better and reduce stress, they likely aren’t going to keep pushing through pain. Exercise doesn’t make you feel good when it’s painful. However, if you are only focusing on how exercise is going to change your appearance, then you might be more influenced to keep pushing through that pain and mutter one of these ridiculous sayings to yourself.
Everybody is unique and has different tipping points. Through tons of trial and error, I have found my limits and the signals my body sends me when I should stop. I know how hard I can work without injuring myself and I know what exercises my body doesn’t enjoy. I also know my limits will continue to change throughout life and I must be willing to adapt. It’s taken me a long time to accept that my body just doesn’t like high impact, plyometric exercises. I want to do them so badly and fit in with everyone else jumping all over the place, but it’s not worth the pain they cause my knees. I can do other exercises that won’t make it hurt to walk later and I can modify plyometrics to fit my needs. If I attend a group fitness class, I tell the instructor ahead of time that I am going to modify exercises and do what works best for my body. I have never ever had an instructor tell me that wasn’t acceptable and I needed to push through the pain.
I encourage you to find and honor your limits. Appreciate your body for what it can do, not what it can’t do. Don’t force yourself to push through pain. The potential short and long term damage isn’t worth it. If you have to stop a workout early or modify an exercise to maintain your form and prevent injury, focus on how proud you are of yourself for exercising in the first place. When you can wake up the next morning pain free and ready to move again, your body will thank you.