Have you heard the adage “no pain, no gain?” It refers to the idea that in order to increase strength, muscle mass, and fitness, a workout must be painful. While it contains a kernel of truth, there’s much more to learn.
Today we’ll examine this concept and determine how much discomfort is useful for muscle growth and fitness progress, and at what point pain actually indicates a problem. You’ll get a clearer sense of what is required to build muscle and bone mass, all while staying safe and keeping your workouts enjoyable.
Pushing Your Limits
Safety should always be the highest priority, but when it comes to working out, discomfort isn’t dangerous. In fact, you must challenge yourself to create growth– pushing into the zone of discomfort whether you’re doing aerobic or anaerobic exercise.
By continuing to run on the treadmill even when it gets challenging, you’ll build your capacity to run farther. By completing an additional repetition (or “rep”) of an exercise, even when you’re feeling that burning sensation of exertion, you’ll build strength and muscle mass. When you hold a yoga pose until it’s difficult to maintain and then stay in it a little longer, you’ll increase core strength and balance.
All of these “gains” correlate to improvements in physical function, and contribute to the health benefits of regular exercise.
When it comes to working out, pushing beyond your limits, into the zone of exertion and discomfort, builds your capacity for that activity. In the process, you’ll gain strength, endurance, stamina, and other physical abilities that have positive health benefits.
What Are Gains?
When people say “no pain, no gain” they often are referring specifically to gaining muscle mass. Building muscle is desirable for many reasons, not the least of which is that added strength makes you more capable of preventing injury and falls.
Later on, you’ll learn more about how increasing muscle mass gives you a greater capacity to build bone mass, but first, let’s look at how new muscle growth is spurred by exercise.
When you use a muscle, you help to maintain the muscle mass that you have. And that’s incredibly important. You don’t have to be pushing to “gain” to get value out of exercise– maintaining the strength and fitness you’ve acquired is also important. But to increase your strength, you have to exert a muscle beyond its current capacity.
When you work a muscle past its limits, by exerting it beyond what is easy to accomplish, whether through doing additional reps or by adding weight or resistance, you create tiny tears in the muscle tissue.
When you’re finished with your exercise, your body starts working to repair these tiny tears, sending growth factors, white blood cells, and hormones to the muscle. Not only does this process repair muscle tissue, but it increases the size of the muscle fibers and the strength of the nerves that activate them.
In this way, the body is learning from experience– your muscle wasn’t strong enough to complete the task you attempted, so the body makes the muscle stronger for next time.
When you exert a muscle past its current capacity, you create tiny tears in the muscle fibers. When your body repairs these tears, it adds extra muscle fiber, so that you’ll be able to exert more force. That’s how exercise builds new muscle.
What Causes Pain From A Workout?
The tiny tears of muscle fibers are part of the discomfort of physical exertion. But the feeling of “the burn” caused by a strength workout is actually due to energy production in the muscle. As the muscles burn carbohydrates for energy, they release hydrogen ions, which cause the acidic burning feeling.
Anyone who has done an intense workout knows that the real discomfort doesn’t come until later. Muscle soreness is part of the process of gaining strength as well, but it often doesn’t start until a day or two later. This is called “Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness” or DOMS. Light muscle tenderness or joint stiffness is completely normal after a workout that is intended to grow more muscle.
In fact, that soreness you feel is a signal that your body is creating the growth you want– sending those hormones and white blood cells to your muscles and building new muscle cells.
Assessing these forms of discomfort is a good way to check and see if your workouts are difficult enough to generate gains. If you don’t find your workout physically challenging, or at all uncomfortable, then it probably isn’t creating growth. If you aren’t sore a day or so after a strength training session, you probably aren’t building new muscle mass.
The discomfort of a workout is caused by the release of hydrogen ions that are a byproduct of energy production, as well as the tearing of muscle fibers. Soreness experienced after a workout is a result of the process of muscle repair and the addition of new muscle mass. It’s a sign that your workout was successful.
Taking Care Of Yourself
The brazenness of the expression “no pain, no gain” gives the false impression that pain is required for a workout to be meaningful. It’s worth saying again that a workout to maintain your fitness and strength is highly valuable. In fact, pushing yourself too hard to continually gain muscle can lead to injury or strain, so a comfortable workout can be a nice break that helps you maintain your wellness.
As you learn what sort of discomfort, soreness, or “burn” are normal, you should also be aware of what sort of pain is dangerous. Sharp or sudden pain is the sign of an injury. If you ever experience pain in that way, you should stop whatever you’re doing immediately.
While light DOMS is a sign that your workout was effective, too much soreness is a sign that you are pushing your body too hard and you could potentially be on the road to an injury. If your muscles are painful to the touch, you get sharp pain of any kind, or soreness persists for more than three days post-workout, you have probably lifted too much weight or performed too many reps. Give your body a break to recover, and dial back the intensity of your workouts.
While a challenging discomfort is normal in a workout, a sharp pain is not. Stop what you’re doing if you experience sharp or shooting pain during a workout. If delayed muscle soreness is severe, or persists for multiple days, you have been overexerting yourself, and you should reduce your workout intensity.
Bone Growth Requires Positive Stress
The body builds new muscle in response to the stress that’s placed on its muscles. When your actions demonstrate the need for greater capacity, your body works to build it. A similar process occurs in your bones.
We’ve known about this physical process for more than a hundred years, thanks to anatomist and surgeon Julius Wolff, who first observed the relationship between bone growth and the loads placed upon bone.
Wolff’s law describes the cause and effect relationship between mechanical load placed on bone, and the body’s production of new bone mass. When stress is applied to bones, the body responds by strengthening bone in the location where the stress was applied. When you perform weight-bearing exercise (any exercise in which the bones are bearing the mechanical load created by the exercise) the result is additional bone mass.
Bone mass increases in accordance to the amount of mechanical load, and stronger muscles can apply more stress on bone– resulting in more bone growth.1
Bone adjusts its structure to adapt to the loads placed on it. This is the fundamental principle of Wolff’s Law. When a bone bears weight (as occurs during weight-bearing exercise) it adds new bone mass at that location. Increased muscle mass creates the ability to apply more mechanical load to bone, which increases new bone formation.
What This Means To You
“No pain, no gain” doesn’t mean that your workouts should be miserable, or that you should be in pain during and after an exercise session. It’s simply a reminder that when we push ourselves out of our comfort zone, we can achieve growth.
When it comes to exercise, that means physical discomfort, but the growth it creates helps us to prevent fractures, improve our health, and live fuller lives. Those are certainly results worth gaining.
Finding the balance between pushing yourself and protecting your body can be tricky, which is why SaveTrainer, our online video-workout program led by certified trainers offers personalized workout plans. SaveTrainer can help you find the sweet spot where you’re able to safely enjoy pushing yourself to gain strength, stamina, and healthier bones.