“No Pain, No Gain” – Fitness Myth or Training Truth?

Man after workout

For some, it is clear that the greater the pain, the bigger the gain. For others, however, mottos like “no pain, no gain” or “only the strong survive” don’t really mean much. Is it really true that training has to hurt to be effective?

As so often, this question cannot be answered by a simple yes or no. We have taken a closer look at four areas — weight loss, strength training, stretching, and improved running performance — and would now like to show you how much truth there is to the saying “no pain, no gain.”

Woman exhausted after training

1. Weight loss

If you want to lose weight and shed a few extra pounds, then one thing is essential: a negative energy balance. If you burn more calories than you consume, you will lose weight. Thus, the best training sessions for you are the ones that burn lots of calories. Total body training with your own body weight or interval running are two types of training well-suited for melting fat. While it is true that you burn more calories at higher intensities, it is certainly not necessary to push yourself to your pain threshold or beyond.

Note: Pain is your body’s way of warning you. Problems with your passive musculoskeletal system (joints, cartilage, ligaments, and tendons) are almost always due to incorrect loading or overloading. Even sore muscles should not be taken lightly. Very hard training sessions or new, unusual movements can cause tiny tears in the muscles, known as microtrauma. If your muscles are very sore, you should definitely avoid doing any intense workouts. Give your body enough time to recover and wait to start up with your training again until the pain has eased.

Woman resting during training

2. Strength training

The motto no pain, no gain” is particularly popular in strength training.

And there is some truth to it if your goal is to build muscle. Generally speaking, your body requires a training stimulus big enough to cause your body to adapt. In other words, you need to get your body out of its comfort zone (homeostasis) in order to set the adaptation process in motion.

If you do one Push-up a day, you are not going to put on muscle. The training stimulus is too low. However, if you do a proper strength training workout twice a week over a longer period of time with enough Push-ups to fatigue your muscles, your body will be forced to adapt and improve itself. Experienced bodybuilders often exercise until complete muscle failure and thus optimize their adaptive responses. But these fitness enthusiasts also make sure to give their muscles plenty of time to recover before attempting their next strength training session.

Man doing Push-ups

Note:  Exercising until complete muscle failure is very effective, but it is only recommended for experienced bodybuilders. Instead, you should concentrate on performing the exercise properly. As soon as you are no longer capable of performing the movement correctly, you should stop the set. This way you can minimize the risk of incorrect loading and overloading.

3. Stretching

During their careers, professional gymnasts or circus contortionists have certainly done some stretching exercises that have pushed them to their pain threshold and perhaps beyond. But, lucky for us, not everyone has to be able to put their leg behind their head 🙂

The basic rule is to stretch only until you feel mild tension. In no case should you feel pain. The same goes for joint mobilization exercises.

4. Improve your running performance

If you think that the only way to get faster is to run to the point of collapse every time, you are seriously mistaken.

Of course, runners who are preparing for a specific race and want to improve their personal best have to incorporate some pretty hard runs into their training. These can be really painful, but even professional runners don’t do many of these killer workouts. The important thing for novice and recreational runners is to build up a good base fitness level. The better your base fitness level, the more intense you can make your running training.

People running stairs

Bottom line

No pain, no gain” only applies to exceptional situations and sometimes in competitive sports. While it is generally true that very hard training is needed in most areas to achieve big training gains, pain should always be avoided. It is important that you listen to your body and not ignore signals like pain. If you give yourself the time you need to recover, you will be able to enjoy working out without pain for a long time to come.


Herwig Natmessnig As a former professional athlete (whitewater slalom), Herwig lives for fitness. Whether in competition or just for fun, he can never turn down a challenge. View all posts by Herwig Natmessnig