Pain is inherently associated with discomfort. So, what’s with the saying “no pain, no gain?” Most of us have heard this old adage and can likely agree that there is a certain bit of wisdom within the statement, but to what degree does pain equal gain? Is there good pain versus bad pain? We investigated this concept with the assistance of former collegiate basketball player and Golden Gloves boxer, Mitchell Senat, physical therapist Daniel Baumstark, and professor of orthopaedic surgery at Johns Hopkins University, Edward McFarland.
What’s considered good pain?
The idea of “good” pain may seem contradictory and confusing to some. But it’s important to remember that it’s a commonly-used moniker in the fitness community. “I think it’s first appropriate to state that there is no such thing as good pain,” says Senat. “Pain is the body’s protective response to stress that signals to us that we should stop doing what’s causing the pain before we further damage ourselves.”
There is, however, a concept of ‘productive pain’ that makes a little more sense. The key is to identify the difference between pain that’s productive and pain that’s a warning sign of something bigger. We’ll dive into that more later.
What about DOMS?
DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness, is a common example of productive pain that shows up after a workout. Generally speaking, you can think of this pain as productive. When you experience DOMS, it means that your body is adapting to become stronger and more resilient. “With this type of soreness, the muscles actually remodel and become stronger and more efficient,” says Baumstark. In this case, ‘no pain, no gain’ holds true.
That said, if you regularly experience intense DOMS, consider taking it down a notch. “I usually recommend the following rule: Take the amount of exercise you think you can do and cut it by one third the first few times you do it,” says McFarland.
What’s considered bad pain?
“Bad” pain can come in minor forms, such as joint aches, side stitches, tweaks and strains. If not treated properly, this kind of pain can become chronic, leading to more serious injuries later. If you’re feeling discomfort, such as dull aches, tenderness or excessive heat in an affected area, and/or an inability to put weight on a particular joint, either during or immediately after your workout, don’t push through it!
“General soreness can indicate the possibility of tendinitis, in which case resting and icing the affected area are recommended,” says McFarland. But, tendinitis doesn’t mean you have to cease all activity. “Opt for less weight bearing activities such as biking, rowing and swimming, as long as you don’t have pain.”
In some cases, adrenaline can partially mask the symptom of a mild injury, but the risk of further damage is not worth continuing. “It’s best to seek out the attention of a specialist in order to pinpoint the problem, and, again, refrain from pushing through the pain just to get that extra rep or achieve a new personal record,” says Baumstark. “You’re better safe than sorry.”
More urgent injuries can result in an inability to put weight on the joints, along with tenderness to the touch. This could be a result of a number of diagnoses, including: ankle sprains or fractures, knee sprains or tears, and hip labral tears, or even stress fractures. “It’s often impossible to continue physical activity when these injuries occur, so seeking out medical attention immediately is very much advised,” says Baumstark.
To Push or Not To Push
Pain, for most of us, is something we try to avoid. But certain types of pain can indicate growth. “In order to be better at anything physical and competitive, there has to be a certain level of struggle,” says Senat. “Discomfort in the moment of exercising, in some cases, is the form of pain that one can embrace. It could be burning in the muscles or in the lungs. It could be tremendous fatigue after a long bout. Or it could be your mind telling you to stop, because that would be easier than going for another set or another sprint.”
This is where ‘no pain, no gain’ rings true. In this case pain is the brain’s response to stress that indicates potential danger. “Work with a professional trainer who knows your specific body and level of fitness,” says Senat, who puts his clients on four-week increments of progression. The key is to take time and avoid overtraining, but also challenge yourself to the point of improvement.