No pain, no gain… Right?

A little while back, I trained a girl who was a few years younger than I am. Good kid. Wanted to get rid of some nagging back pains. She didn’t have any specific goals besides that so we stuck to reinforcing some basic movement patterns, improving posture, building a bit of overall strength, nothing fancy. At some point during a set of overhead presses, she said that it hurt. Me being the concerned trainer that I am, I asked her where she felt the pain and what type of pain it was. I thought of perhaps some lower back pain through an exaggerated backward lean during the movement, or perhaps her shoulder felt uncomfortable because she didn’t finish the lock out of the movement properly.

Apparently, she felt a burning sensation in her triceps (elbow extensors, the back of your upper arm). For a split second, what went through my head was “Well, obviously. It’s training. You’re exerting mucles.” I explained that any moderately heavy movement repeated often enough will cause ‘the burn’ in your muscles and that this is totally normal. Her response was “Ah, you’re one of those hardcore ‘no pain, no gain’ guys, aren’t you?”

I shrugged and we laughed it off, but it did remind me of something that I should never forget as a trainer and that people in general tend to forget. What may be obvious to us can be a completely new lesson for someone else. This girl had no idea of what ‘normal strength training’ was like so it was not fair of me to expect her to know this.

Considering this point might be a useful lesson for people to begin with, but there is another lesson to be learned here.


Matthias Steiner, a weightlifter who severely injured himself a while back and was lucky not to be worse off than this. Glorifying pain as being a productive or ‘cool’ part of training may not be entirely appropriate.


I tend to use caffeine as a pre-workout supplement for my more important workouts. Recently I’ve been experiencing a nagging, radiating pain during cleans. (For those not familiar with olympic weightlifting, it’s where you lift a weight from the floor to your shoulders while squatting underneath it to catch it. Here’s a short video of Lidia Valentin doing it. Looks cute? Yeah, until you realize she can lift close to 150kg/330lbs overhead.) The pain I have is not the burning sensation that is typical for moderately heavy strength training for a moderate amount of repetitions, like doing heavy sets of +-10 repetitions. The pain I have is not productive and is ideally not present, yet it comes with the territory… For me. I participate in competitions so I will occasionally lift maximally, may sacrifice form for a personal record and will occasionally injure myself. This is not something I will expect from my clients who “just want to get in shape” or anything. For them, this would be unacceptable and a phrase like “no pain, no gain” would just be stupid for them. In my case, I have a small competition coming up in a little more than two weeks. I could take a step back for a week or two to focus on getting rid of this injury, but that would mean skipping the competition or performing a lot worse than would be worth my time. Instead, I decided to just take acetaminophen with my caffeine before my heavier workouts until after the competition. So in this case, even training through an injury (which is normally considered stupid – and I tend to agree) is a case of “no pain, no gain”. This is completely different from the girl I trained a little while back.

So yeah, it’s great throwing around images of fitness models with phrases that glorify pain, sweat, ‘the burn’, never giving up and of course the “no pain, no gain” classic, but whether that mentality is appropriate depends on your situation, goals and priority. Prioritize consciously and keep both your ego and tough talk in check.


“Why tip toe through life only to safely end up at death?” – ?