The “no pain no gain” motto was popularized in 1982 by Jane Fonda who used the saying in a number of her popular aerobic dance workout videos. It’s of course applicable to many things in life; bringing attention to the fact that we often need to put some effort into things we may or may not want to do before we are able reap the benefits that only that labour can provide.
This wisdom holds some truth to it in the exercise world, too. If you don’t notice any amount of burning or tension in a muscle group while you’re working out or shortly after your workout, you’re likely not exercising hard enough to significantly stimulate your muscle to grow and adapt. Progression is a key component when it comes to exercise, meaning you need to increase your volume or resistance level slowly over time in order to continually see muscle gains. A small amount of soreness, otherwise known as DOMS is indeed normal and a sign you’re doing things right.
Where “No Pain No Gain” Fails
Where “no pain no gain” fails is in its interpretation, particularly amongst the crossfit and bodybuilding crowds. Too often, participants take this saying literally and workout at a level of intensity that is way past what is required to trigger muscle growth, fat burning, blood flow enhancement, heart-health improvement, stress-relief or any other benefit of exercise. They often feel pain and severe discomfort, attempting to push themselves past the normal point of failure in the belief that this is necessary to reach their goals.
While this kind of dogma can have some motivating benefits, it too often leads to injury or excessive DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). You shouldn’t be working out at a level where you are still sore 72 hours after your workout. You also shouldn’t be working out at a level where, in your next workout, you are unable to complete it due to previous soreness or tenderness. These are clear signs that you’re working too hard and need to scale your intensity down a notch or two.
How Do You Know The Difference?
A good rule of thumb to distinguish between working out too hard and normal muscle soreness is the onset timing of the soreness. If it’s acute and comes on abruptly during a workout, then you can be sure that you’ve gone beyond the normal “microtrauma” that we aim for in a workout and have likely done some more serious damage. If this happens, treat it as an injury and stop the workout immediately and seek adequate medical care if it’s serious enough to warrant it.
If the soreness comes on somewhat later, and develops at a slower pace, you can reliably assume that this is normal. Remember, a small amount of soreness is absolutely normal and a sign that you have adequately stimulated your muscle to grow.
Soreness is Not an Indicator
It’s worthwhile noting that muscle soreness, while reassuring that you have worked out intensely enough, is not an adequate measure of your workout intensity. There’s a high degree of variability in perceived muscle soreness, even amongst those with similar genetics, felt during and after a workout. Studies prove that soreness itself is poorly correlated as an indicator of muscle adaptation and growth.
To summarize, just because you’re not crippled the next day doesn’t mean you didn’t sufficiently stimulate your muscle or cardiovascular system for improved performance. On the flip side, absolutely no strain at any point during your workout and no soreness afterwards might be a good indication that your body has adapted to what you’re doing and you need to ramp up your intensity, volume, or resistance a bit. It’s easy to over complicate things, but, as with many things in fitness, a little common sense goes a long way.