No pain, no gain: True/False?

No pain, no gain was a mantra of the eighties, a ruthless motto for a ruthless decade. And unlike shoulder pads and synthpop it will never go out of fashion because it is quite true — at least so far as physical fitness goes.

It needs qualification, though, so don’t rush out and subject yourself to a gruelling training programme just yet. This gung-ho maxim does encapsulate a sober principle of fitness training, the principle of overloading. Pain during exercise is not always, or even often, a good thing. But in order to achieve improvements, in strength, speed or endurance, some stress, discomfort and, yes, probably pain are required.

There isn’t a lot to overloading. It’s just the observation that the body only changes in response to challenging conditions. Muscles, for example, only grow if you lift more weight than usual. And it doesn’t take much — spending only a few seconds a day pushing a muscle beyond its typical load can be enough to stimulate development.

In general, the body reacts to excess physical stress by adapting to cope with it. It does as little as it can, though, so without excess stress nothing happens. You can adopt the finest diet and buy the snazziest trainers you want, but you’ll never become a track star by taking gentle strolls in the park, no matter how many you take.

It’s even worse than that. Not only is there no gain without pain, but you’d better use it or lose it. Your body is nothing if not economical, and if you don’t use it to capacity you will find that capacity diminishes.

No pain, no gain is still a bit melodramatic. A practical result of exercise physiology is the discovery of these and other principles that allow training to be carefully designed to minimise pain and make the most of time and energy. And that’s just one of the reasons you should consult an expert before embarking on any serious training.

After all, there may be no gain without pain but that doesn’t mean that anything that doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

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