Is “No Pain, No Gain” an Exercise Myth?

Discover if “no pain, no gain” is a good approach to exercise, how sore you should be after a workout, and if (or how much) exercise should hurt.

Ben Greenfield
5-minute read
Episode #136

Is “No Pain, No Gain” an Exercise Myth?

In the movie Pain & Gain, which stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Mark Wahlberg, a trio of bodybuilders in Florida get caught up in an extortion ring and a kidnapping scheme that goes terribly wrong. There are many scenes in the movie that involve a stereotypical exercise scenario of grimacing dumbbell biceps curls, heavy and painful barbell squats, and a host of other suggestions that exercise really has to hurt to be successful.

But does it?

In today’s episode, we’ll find out if the philosophy of “no pain, no gain” is actually a good approach to exercise, and if it really is necessary for your workouts to hurt. We’ll also figure out how sore you really should be after a workout.

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What Makes Muscles Hurt During a Workout?

Contrary to popular belief, lactic acid that builds up during a workout does not actually cause muscle soreness or muscle burning. Instead, tiny protons called “hydrogen ions” are released as you burn sugar for energy, such as when you’re squatting a barbell or running on a treadmill. These hydrogen ions are acidic, and so you feel an acid “burn” as you’re doing that exercise.

But while this acid contributes to the burn you feel during exercise, it’s not what makes you sore after a workout. In the episode How to Make Your Muscles Bigger, you learned that when you require a muscle to produce a force, like when you’re doing a dumbbell biceps curl, most of those muscle fibers in your biceps are exposed to tension. The tension from the weight of the dumbbells stretches the fibers and causes tiny tears in them. When the cells in your muscle fibers sense this trauma, they begin to rally the muscle-building troops from your body to repair the tears.

These muscle-building troops include hormones, growth factors, and white blood cells. Working together, these troops not only repair the muscle fibers in your biceps, but they also increase the size of those fibers and the strength of the nerves that activate them, so that next time you lift a dumbbell you are better able to do so or you can lift a heavier weight. As those fibers increase in size, your biceps grow and your arms become more toned.

When this trauma occurs to your muscle fibers, nociceptors (pain receptors) within your muscle tissues are stimulated and these nociceptors cause your brain to feel the sensation of pain. In addition, when you’re tearing up muscle fibers, calcium that is normally stored in the area around your muscles actually accumulates inside the damaged muscles. This accumulation of calcium can activate enzymes called “proteases” and “phospholipases” which can break down and degenerate muscle protein, causing inflammation and further pain due to the accumulation of inflammatory and pain-producing chemicals such as histamines and prostaglandins.

Excessive soreness is generally an indication that you either increased volume or intensity far too quickly in your exercise routine, or that you did not recover properly. Us exercise geeks use a term called “DOMS,” which is short for “Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness,” and it basically means soreness that does not peak immediately after a workout, but rather, about 24-48 hours post-workout. DOMS that manifests in light muscle tenderness and stiff joints is completely normal, but DOMS that results in muscles that are very painful to the touch or sharp pains in the joints is not normal. In other words, if it hurts to twitch, sneeze, giggle, or blink a couple of days after a workout, then you need to pay attention to what you are about to read.

How Much Should Muscles Hurt During a Workout?

If your muscles don’t burn a little bit when you’re running on a treadmill, then you’re likely not exercising hard enough to significantly elevate your metabolism or get fit enough to increase your speed. And if your muscles aren’t a little sore a few days after you’ve done a weight training session, you’re probably not lifting heavy enough or hard enough to build muscle.

But nonetheless, you’re still getting blood flow enhancement, calorie-burning, heart health-improving, and stress-relieving benefits from the workout! As a matter of fact, there are a variety of reasons that you need to be careful how much you actually make your muscles hurt during a workout, and why pain may not be a good idea when you’re exercising:

1) Pain can mean injury: If pain is sharp or happens suddenly during your workout, it could mean you've injured yourself. Soreness that isn’t related to an injury usually takes 1-2 days to set in, and doesn’t usually happen during the actual workout.

2) It’s OK to just maintain fitness: Your muscles eventually get used to the demand you place on them, which means that the same overhead shoulder presses that might currently make it painful to lift your arms over your head the next day won't have the same effect after you've been doing them for months. But just because you're no longer sore doesn't mean those shoulder presses aren’t still benefiting you. Whether you always attend a favorite class, do the same exercise, or do the same treadmill workout every week, you'll still be maintaining the muscle strength and fitness you've already gained. Sure – if you want to build new muscles or significantly enhance fitness, you might need to add new soreness-increasing or slightly uncomfortable workouts or exercises. But you don’t have to feel the pressure to do that unless you want to progress past whatever fitness point you’re currently at.

3) Your body needs breaks. Even though being sore after a workout is sometimes a good thing for building muscles, and feeling a burn during a workout can often mean you’re going hard enough to build significant fitness, these same feelings can also be stressful to your body, your hormones, and your mind. Your body needs a break sometimes, and constantly being in masochistic mode can eventually cause you to break down, start skipping workouts, get grumpy, and just feel unhappy. So it’s OK to have easy days and easy workouts without feeling like you always need to push yourself to the maximum!

How Much Soreness Is Too Much?

As you’ve just learned, exercise produces tiny tears in the muscle, and the soreness that accompanies those tears is normal. Excessive soreness, however, should be avoided. If it is 3 days after a workout, and the muscles you exercised are still painful to the touch or your joints are still stiff, then you probably lifted too much weight or performed too many sets and reps. Normal soreness peaks about 48 hours after a workout, then subsides by the third day.

For some sore muscle remedies, including a video demonstrating a soreness-reducing product I use, head over here, and also check out my episode How to Recover After a Workout.

If you have more questions about no pain, no gain, or you want to chat about how the guys in the Pain & Gain movie got their huge arms, then head over to Facebook.com/GetFitGuy. See you there!

Biceps and Shoulder Press images from Shutterstock

About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.