Pain, No Gain

man with shoulder pain

No that's not a typo. We've all heard, "No pain, no gain!" relating to fitness, usually strength training. But grueling workouts aren't necessary to make progress, and can be particularly counterproductive after 40. Moreover, workout "pain" is almost always a bad thing.

The "no pain, no gain" folks are generally using the word "pain" to refer to extreme exertion. Real pain during a workout almost always indicates an injury, and that's bad...especially as we get older and take longer to recover.

We should all follow the primum non nocere rule: "first, do no harm." In this case, it means don't hurt yourself. This should be obvious, yet it happens all the time. Injuries don't just hurt: they result in missed workouts and compromised form. This is the primary reason that pain equals no gain: you won't make progress when injured.

How do we prevent injury? Following these three guidelines will be a big help.

  1. Warm Up. I've written often about warming up (here, here, here, and here, for example) because it's really important for over-40 folks. When the weather is colder, it's even more important. If you're lifting weights, be sure to include some warm-up sets with lighter loads before getting to the hard stuff.
  2. Form CopUse Good Form. Doing an exercise with bad form can lead to sudden injuries (acute) like strains, sprains, and tears, or, more often, to nagging injuries that result from doing a movement poorly over a long period of time (chronic) such as tendinitis. Always assume The Form Cop is watching and do it right.
  3. Don't Overdo It. This can be a corollary to #2 since trying to use too much weight or doing anything to exhaustion almost always leads to using bad form. You don't need to work to failure for an exercise to be effective. Always leave one or two reps "in the tank." That is, stop when you think you'll only be able to do one or two more reps. An effective workout isn't one that crushes you, it's one that enables you to progress.

The other kind of workout pain people often experience is the soreness that shows up a day or two after the workout. This is known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). Again, this is not the sign of a good workout, it's just the result of doing something challenging that your body isn't used to. (Contrary to popular belief, it has nothing to do with lactic acid.) Some DOMS is OK early in your program as your body adjusts to a new routine. But severe DOMS is bad because it usually leads to missing workouts. A well-designed program can minimize DOMS even for people just starting out. It just takes a little patience.

Gary with climbing rope

"No pain, no gain" is a catchy phrase that may seem to make sense. But you can make gains without pain, and the pain of injury is a sure way to prevent gains. So next time you hear that phrase, mentally drop the "no" and have yourself a safe, enjoyable, and productive workout...and keep it up.

Be seeing you.


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