Why Exercise That’s Hurting Isn’t Always Working

“No Pain, No Gain!”

“If It Isn’t Hurting, It Isn’t Working!”

“Work Through The Pain!”

drill instructor

Image via Wiki Media

The drill-sergeant style of encouragement for exercise regimes is one that goes in and out of fashion. At the bottom of it all is the idea that you’re not pushing yourself if you’re not in pain; that people who complain about the pain aren’t committed. And, although physical exertion is essential for effective fitness regimes, that kind of rhetoric can go too far.

The “feel the burn” mentality comes from the fact that when your muscles are worked at a high intensity, they run out of oxygen. That oxygen is what the body normally uses to break down glucose and create energy. If the body isn’t producing enough oxygen, it uses enzymes to break down glucose. This, in turn, creates lactic acid, and hence the burn that so many people value.

Is this a bad thing? Well … in small doses, it can be worthwhile to go for a high-intensity workout. Sometimes you’ll need it. Where it goes wrong is in the idea that the “burn” is a necessary part of exercise.

Firstly, it’s not. Your body is breaking down glucose for energy anyway, remember? As long as it is using oxygen to do this, you won’t even get a burn, but you’ll still be expending energy and burning calories. Secondly, if a muscle is hurting, it’s protesting at being overworked. It means you should give it a rest and work something else.

What else is wrong with the “burn” mentality? Well, unless your workout is planned to the letter and highly nuanced, it’s easy to misread the messages your body sends you.

  1. Don’t Be A Hero

It’s become a trope on TV shows and films. The central character joins a gym, or the army, and thinks they can goof off and make a joke of it all. They get paired with a super-serious drill sergeant. If it’s a gym, that’ll be a personal trainer who sees weakness everywhere they look. The laughs come at the expense of the central character who, forced to work much harder than they expected, usually vomits.

The thing is, certain parts of that message have festered for a while and been taken seriously. Most of us know someone who has hit the gym and worked until they could no longer stand. Why? Because weakness is shameful. Getting tired is weak. Feeling pain is weak. Stopping is so weak that if you step off the treadmill, forget about coming back. You’re done.

If your workout is so severe that you can’t move without wincing for the next few days, it was too severe. It wasn’t brave, it wasn’t macho, it was stupid. Any gain you may have made regarding muscle mass or calorie loss, you’ve lost in various other ways.

  1. Pain Is A Message


Photo by Ryan Weisgerber

The somewhat aggressive mentality of pain being good in exercise makes you wonder where it stops. Imagine for a moment that instead of internally releasing lactic acid; you started to bleed when the oxygen ran out. As arterial blood spurts across the gym, your gym buddy pats you on the back. They yell “Keep going! That’s how you can tell it’s a good workout!”.

Pain, like bleeding, is your body telling you it is not happy with what is going on. Rather than doubling down and “working through the pain”, it’s wise to listen to your body. A little light ache, maybe you can work through it. But when pain starts radiating, stop. Muscle injuries need rest, and they won’t get better if you try to run it off.

  1. The Treadmill Is Not Always Your Friend

fitness-957115_1920Photo taken by Profivideo

It has become shorthand for a gym workout. When people who don’t often go to the gym picture going to the gym, they see treadmills in their mind. So when they do go to the gym – or decide to work out at home –  a treadmill is where they go. However, particularly for people who don’t have a history of gym work and a go-to workout, treadmills aren’t a great option.

Even if you don’t use them, you know how they work. The conveyor belt moves and, to stay on it, you keep running. You can set the speed, simulate inclines and give yourself a target to run for. What more and more people are realizing is that running on a treadmill isn’t as good for you as you may think. The longer you’re on it and the more intense your workout, the bigger the risks.

The impact caused by your foot slamming down on the treadmill incrases the likelihood of injuries such as fractures. You can spread this impact by using machines more like an elliptical trainer. It’s better for your joints and allows you to vary your workout more.

Elliptical consumers are a lot less likely to suffer arthritic injuries in the future. They’re also less likely to have to take time off their workout because of a stress or impact injury. It’s better for you all round.

  1. You’re There To Get Fit; Gauge How You Feel

If you spend any more than a few minutes a week saying to yourself “Oooh, that hurts” and moving very slowly; then you have to ask questions. You’re in this to get fit, and if all that you feel is stiff and painful, then you’re getting nothing from it. There is nothing to be gained from an “all or nothing” attitude to exercise. Control is vastly more important than volume.

If you’re a relative gym novice, start small and work up steadily. The absolute worst idea you could have at this stage is to try and earn gym respect. You know how if a ball rolls to you in the park, the soundest thing is just to roll it back as nonchalantly as you can? We all know someone who’ll try to play it back like Pele. These people never are Pele, and they end up looking stupid. So will you if you hit the gym too hard.

As you build, you can do more of what you are doing at present, add more elements and boost your fitness. As you learn what your body is capable of, your workouts will become more efficient. It’s this efficiency that will build your fitness, far more than marathon gym sessions and hardcore workouts. Your body is like a machine. It will get better from respectful use, not from punishment.

The “no pain, no gain” crowd are never quite so chatty when they pull a hamstring or fracture an ankle. It’s easy to understand why people get carried away, as they are encouraged to take things to the next level. Competitive bodybuilding has a wide range of problems that rarely get talked about when people are lifting trophies. One of those issues is quite how unwell a lot of practitioners feel every day.

Much of your approach to gym workouts has to be quite simple. Knowing the difference between hurting because you’ve had a good workout and hurting because you’ve pulled a muscle. Keeping yourself hydrated so that your body can regenerate (rather than dehydrated, so your muscles show more).  Making sensible decisions may not seem very heroic, but neither is spending your evenings vomiting.

If some of the above reads as being quite dismissive and even unpleasant towards hardcore gym users, it’s not. People who use the gym regularly to gain and maintain fitness can get real enjoyment from it. Balance in your workout regime and diet mean you don’t have to choose between a ripped physique and feeling good.


The lesson here is for people who feel it has to all be about getting that muscle-bound physique right now. For people who are under the impression that if you’re not in the gym, you’re slacking. That if you’re not straining every last sinew, you’re not serious about fitness. If you’ve toned your physique from a long spell of seriously hard work, then feel good about it, you deserve to.

It is simply important to strike a cautionary note. People who look at slimming magazines and think they need to get that slim often miss the deeper message. It’s well and good if you want to lose weight, but you still need to eat well to stay healthy. And just as competitive dieting can lead to eating disorders, gym mania can lead to real health issues too.

Whether you’re going to the gym to get fit or looking to purchase home gym equipment, this is worth keeping in mind. Equip yourself with the right things to get the workout you need. Look at the entire process globally, understanding that it IS a process. Recognize that rest and sleep are as important a part of the process of your workout.

Most important of all is finding your levels. Your body is different in its way from everyone else’s, so what works for you will be unique. Don’t try to match what the fittest person in the gym is doing – it won’t bring the same results and it won’t do you any good in the long run.




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