Root of “No Pain, No Gain” [1]

Strengthening and conditioning training was taken from the concept of building muscle bulk for bodybuilding and that is the source of the “no pain, no gain” mindset. Now this adage has been applied indiscriminately to all sports, even in sports where carrying extra muscle bulk is the equivalent of trying to finish last, of trying to lose.

“No pain, no gain” provided a motto, a distinct ‘experience’ for marketers, a unique attribute to exercise.

But with the “no pain, no gain” credo, sport lost athletes and gained a generation of thrillseekers: individuals not seeking health, not seeking betterment of themselves, not seeking technical expertise, but the high – as in an addicts high – of engaging the threat and stress of fear in order to experience the release and high of endorphins, adrenalin and cortisol.

“No pain, no gain” arose from sport coaches and exercise physiologists both of whom were hoping to jump in on the commercialization and the growth of the fitness industry by making names for themselves as tough, merciless, hard taskmasters that would drive you to your limit and beyond.

It was the roaring 80s, the fitness craze was firing up, and the opportunity to be an expert and to monetize on the eagerness of the population to train for fitness drove the need for ideas and explanations on why exercise works, how it works, and how we should exercise.

“No pain, no gain” arose from the belief that in order to develop strength, muscle needs to be made to grow in size in order for the athlete to gain in strength, in power.

“No pain, no gain” comes from the concept that to build muscle, you need to workout to such a degree, at such intensity that you literally ‘rip’ and ‘tear’ muscle at the microscopic level, providing it the stimulus via injury in the hope that it will heal bigger and stronger than before. By repeating this cycle over and over the belief is that your muscles will recover, heal from the self inflicted ripping, tearing, from the multiple injuries you self inflict, and grow stronger in the process.

It works, there is no doubt.  There is proof of it as rip & rest is the cornerstone of bodybuilding.When all that matters is total muscle volume and appearance of that muscle, and there is no functional requirement of the muscles except to be oiled up and put on display at max tension so that it can be judged in competition, then who cares how you build the muscle.

Can bodybuilders lift, push, pull, and carry inordinate loads? Absolutely.

Can they do it in any functional matter that applies to sport? Absolutely not.Have you ever seen a bodybuilder win the 100m sprint, the 5,000m, the marathon? What about discus, javelin or the hammer throw? Any water sports? How bout any sport? Nope.

They have muscle, but they have no functional use for that muscle because they built the muscle, they did not train muscle to execute a function. Although a minute difference, this is the entire difference between muscle bulk which is useless in sport and training which is neurologically focused to coordinate all muscles in the body to work in harmony to execute sport specific technique, to execute strategy, to complete choreography.

If “no pain, no gain” was the secret to success in sport, then bodybuilders should be winning Olympic medals left and right, winning at Worlds Championships across all sports, and recognized as the epitome of athletism.

They are not, because they cannot apply their muscle mass efficiently to any sport.

“No pain, no gain” obviously works as a bodybuilding concept, but if you are not a bodybuilder then “no pain, no gain” applies to you as much as the dumbbell in the image above does to any distance runner… its useless!

“No pain, no gain” is irrelevant to any athlete involved in sport because in sport you do not want bulk, you do not want muscle mass, you want efficiency.

Absolute peak power is irrelevant in sport and to sport.

What matters is peak power per kilogram of body weight.

If anything, bodybuilders represent the diametric opposite of athletes who train for sport.  In bodybuilding it is not the most efficient who wins, it is the least efficient… it is the bulkiest, heaviest, most cumbersome that wins.

So if the training philosophy of bodybuilding is “no pain, no gain” and bodybuilding is the anti-thesis of the type of strength, endurance, and power that an athlete wants in sport… then what does that say about sport athletes training “no pain, no gain”?

It says that they are training to lose, not to win.

It says that they are training to become less and less efficient, not more and more.

It says that any exercise physiologist or coach who is training their athletes in this mindset for anything other than bodybuilding competitions, has no clue how to train athletes for sport.

Anyone who wants to convince you otherwise is ignorant.

Anyhow, “no pain, no gain” is simply an absurd concept when it comes to performance. Why?

Because muscle bulk is not the worst byproduct of the “no pain, no gain” mindset. Even worse is that the “no pain, no gain” mindset is that it is the root behind athletes training and inflicting self-harm.  The “no pain, no gain” mantra forms the narratives which permit and encourage athletes to self inflict… pain, injury, illness all in a belief that by damaging and destroying themselves somehow it leads to better health, better well-being, as well as gains in strength, endurance and power.

How absurd is “no pain, no gain” training when applied to training for sport… inflicting self-harm believing that you are becoming a better athlete is akin to hitting yourself with a hammer hoping that if you can only take more and more hits, and harder and harder hits, by being able to “take the pain” you will magically transform that into athletic performance.

There is no relation between being able to “take the pain” and being able to swim more smoothly, to bike more efficiently, more aerodynamically, or running more effortlessly.

Its absurd.

Its ignorant.

Its the dumbest model we have come up with to train athletes, especially as a model to train children, tweens, and teens.

Consider this…

There are countless Olympians, and Olympic medalists who are teens; teens who competed at the Olympics before they even came close to the physiological and psychological peaks of the early 20s. There are in fact Olympic gold medalists who were so young that there is no way that they had fully developed physically, to their max strength, to their peak endurance, yet they eclipsed the abilities of all other athletes against whom they competed to win.

How?  Not by the “no pain, no gain” mindset.