No Pain, No Gain?

Jun 26, 2014 | by AIF

Tammy Dayan, Remedial Massage Therapist & Business Coach at the Australian Institute of Fitness, WA, looks at the exercise motto no pain, no gain to establish whether its a motivating one or one that can lead to injury.

The term no pain, no gain’ promises greater value rewards for the price of hard, and even painful work. Under this conception competitive professionals such as athletes and artists are required to endure pain and pressure to achieve professional excellence.

Before determining whether this approach is indeed effective or harmful, let’s look at the biochemistry of our body.

What Makes Muscles Hurt During a Workout?

Contrary to popular belief, lactic acid that builds up during a workout does not actually cause muscle soreness or muscle burning. Instead, tiny protons called hydrogen ions are released as you burn sugar for energy, and these hydrogen ions are acidic. Acidic muscles will aggravate associated nerve endings causing pain and increase irritation of the central nervous system.

The athlete may become disorientated and feel nauseous. But while this acid contributes to the burn’ you feel during exercise, it’s not what makes you sore after a workout. When you require a muscle to produce a force, most muscle fibres are exposed to tension. The tension from the weight stretches the fibres and causes tiny tears in them. When this trauma occurs to your muscle fibres, nociceptors (pain receptors) within your muscle tissues are stimulated cause your brain to feel the sensation of pain.

In addition, when you’re tearing up muscle fibres, calcium that is normally stored in the area around your muscles actually accumulates inside the damaged muscles. This accumulation of calcium can activate enzymes called proteases and phospholipases which can break down and degenerate muscle protein, causing inflammation and further pain due to the accumulation of inflammatory and pain-producing chemicals such as histamines and prostaglandins.

How Much Soreness Is Too Much?

Exercise produces tiny tears in the muscle, and the soreness that accompanies those tears is normal. Excessive soreness, however, should be avoided as it is generally an indication that you either increased volume or intensity far too quickly in your exercise routine, or that you did not recover properly.

If it is 3 days after a workout, and the muscles you exercised are still painful to the touch or your joints are still stiff, then you probably lifted too much weight or performed too many sets and reps. Normal soreness peaks about 48 hours after a workout, then subsides by the third day.

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness basically means soreness that does not peak immediately after a workout, but rather, about 24-48 hours post-workout. DOMS is thought to be a result of microscopic tearing of the muscle fibers. The amount of tearing (and soreness) depends on how hard and how long you exercise and what type of exercise you do. Any movement you aren’t used to can lead to DOMS, but eccentric muscle contractions (movements that cause muscle to forcefully contract while it lengthens) seem to cause the most soreness. Examples of eccentric muscle contractions include going down stairs, running downhill, lowering weights and the downward motion of squats and push-ups.

In addition to small muscle tears there can be associated swelling in a muscle, which may contribute to soreness. This type of soreness that manifests in light muscle tenderness and stiff joints is completely normal, but soreness that results in muscles that are very painful to the touch or sharp pains in the joints is not normal. In other words, if it hurts to twitch, sneeze, giggle, or blink a couple of days after a workout, then you need to revise your workout plan.

How Much Should Muscles Hurt During a Workout?

If your muscles don’t burn a little bit when you’re running on a treadmill, then you’re likely not exercising hard enough to significantly elevate your metabolism or get fit enough to increase your speed. And if your muscles aren’t a little sore a few days after you’ve done a weight training session, you’re probably not lifting heavy enough or hard enough to build muscle. But nonetheless, you’re still getting blood flow enhancement, calorie-burning, heart health-improving, and stress-relieving benefits from the workout!

As a matter of fact, there are a variety of reasons that you need to be careful how much you actually make your muscles hurt during a workout, and why pain may not be a good idea when you’re exercising:

  • Pain can mean injury: If pain is sharp or happens suddenly during your workout, it could mean you’ve injured yourself. Soreness that isn’t related to an injury usually takes 1-2 days to set in, and doesn’t usually happen during the actual workout.
  • It’s ok to just maintain fitness: Your muscles eventually get used to the demand you place on them, which means that the same overhead shoulder presses that might currently make it painful to lift your arms over your head the next day won’t have the same effect after you’ve been doing them for months. But just because you’re no longer sore doesn’t mean those shoulder presses aren’t still benefiting you. Whether you always attend a favourite class, do the same exercise, or do the same treadmill workout every week, you’ll still be maintaining the muscle strength and fitness you’ve already gained. Sure, if you want to build new muscles or significantly enhance fitness, you might need to add new soreness, increasing or slightly uncomfortable workouts or exercises, but you don’t have to feel the pressure to do that unless you want to progress past whatever fitness point you’re currently at.
  • Your body needs breaks! Even though being sore after a workout is sometimes a good thing for building muscles, and feeling a burn during a workout can often mean you’re going hard enough to build significant fitness, these same feelings can also be stressful to your body, your hormones, and your mind. Your body needs a break and constantly being in masochistic mode can eventually cause you to break down, start skipping workouts, get grumpy, and just feel unhappy. So it’s ok to have easy days and easy workouts without feeling like you always need to push yourself to the maximum!

Remember that warm up, stretches, massage, rest and recovery, nutrition, sufficient amount of water and self care are essential part of exercise.



The Australian Institute of Fitness
The Australian Institute of Fitness (AIF) is the largest and longest established fitness training organisation in Australia, with dynamic training methods and expert course coaches nationwide - spanning fitness, massage and nutrition. The AIF qualifies more fitness professionals than any other provider in Australia, as well as offering a broad range of continuing education courses (CEC), upskilling resources and partnership programs for existing industry.

Read more articles

View all articles

Disclaimer: Where Certificate III in Fitness, Cert III/Cert 3, or Fitness Coach is mentioned, it refers to SIS30321 Certificate III in Fitness. Where Certificate IV in Fitness, Cert IV/Cert 4, or Personal Trainer is mentioned, it refers to SIS40221 Certificate IV in Fitness. Where Master Trainer Program™ is mentioned, it refers to Fitness Essentials and SIS40221 Certificate IV in Fitness. Where Master Trainer Plus+ Program™ is mentioned, it refers to SIS30321 Certificate III in Fitness and SIS40221 Certificate IV in Fitness. Where Certificate IV in Massage or Cert IV/Cert 4 is mentioned, it refers to HLT42021 Certificate IV in Massage Therapy. Where Diploma of Remedial Massage is mentioned, it refers to HLT52021 Diploma of Remedial Massage.