There used to be a phrase, “No pain, no gain” that Jane Fonda would use in the 1980’s in her exercise videos and it blew up. It became a mantra for some people, they would say this phrase during their workout and it would get them through it.
Although I think it’s great to have something like that to help motivate you and get you through the workout; some people may take this phrase very literally. Meaning, if they don’t feel sore or their body doesn’t hurt, then they believe they’re not benefiting from the workout.
Perception of Pain:
Let’s clarify a couple things first; The International Association for the Study of Pain defines pain as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage.” The key word here is sensory. We sense pain, and we all sense pain differently. The perception of pain is influenced by factors such as gender, age, social, and cultural norms. For example, two children bump their heads and one starts to cry and the other one doesn’t. The child that starts to cry perceives the pain to be greater than the other child, even though the pain is the same. Secondly, exercise should never really be “painful,” as pain is a sign of injury; however exercise must be uncomfortable (or stressful) in order for our bodies to be compelled to adapt. So at the end of the day, it’s a fine line.
Research on Pain:
Because pain is perceptual and thereby subjective, it is very difficult to study under laboratory conditions. Research that has been conducted on pain and soreness stemming from exercise has been very inconclusive. In fact, very little (if any) research has ever correlated pain/soreness and training adaptations. Simply put, you don’t have to get sore from exercise to get something out if it (although you certainly may get sore).
For someone just learning a movement and activating the muscle to develop a better mind-muscle connection, pain doesn’t (and shouldn’t) have to be experienced to see an increase in activation. Someone that is not a novice exerciser can perform the same movement that they used to and not have any pain or soreness because their body has gotten used to the movement.
Pain vs. Soreness
There is also the pain (more accurately soreness) that we feel sometimes post exercise known as DOMS (Delayed onset muscle soreness). DOMS occurs after exercise around 24-48 hours and even sometimes up to 72 hours. This soreness doesn’t necessarily mean that you worked hard; it just means that the muscles have tiny micro tears that will cause inflammation that will eventually repair damaged tissue.
If you are a novice exerciser; as you progress, realize that your soreness levels won’t be as bad as your first day exercising, but you will still experience DOMS throughout your time exercising.
Take Home Message:
If you are challenging your body during your exercises and progressing week to week you don’t have to be in pain. It’s more about the effort you are putting into the workout than how your body feels afterward. Of course if you push yourself hard there is the potential to be sore, which is fine! As long as it doesn’t restrict your daily activities or force you to miss a workout later in the week.
Train hard, but train smart.