“No pain, no gain!” 

These four words are used frequently in the wide world of fitness. From adolescent athletes to weekend warriors, the “no pain, no gain” mentality is ingrained in fitness culture. While this mantra can have its place in the world of motivational tactics in order to push people past their comfort zones, it can also push people too far.

Our lives are fast-paced. Even in a tiny mountain town like Durango, we still feel pressured to work longer hours and to commit to more social activities. We are used to feeling tired. We are used to straddling the line that separates comfort and discomfort. In fact, that line is often blurred. In regard to physical fitness, this line can be even more complicated to find.

The Fluctuating Pain Threshold 

To make matters more complicated, humans have different pain thresholds. What is painful to one is pleasant to another. Additionally, our levels of pain tolerance are greatly affected by a wide range of variables. Didn’t get enough sleep last night? You’ll likely feel your workout more. Didn’t fuel your body properly after a heavy lifting session? Chances are your muscles will not recover as quickly. Cramps? Depression? A family emergency? An arthritic flare-up? Car problems? One-too-many margaritas? All of these external factors can manipulate your tolerance to pain. 

So…how do you figure out how much pain is too much pain? How do you find that subjective line? At what point do you throw a bucket of chalk at a veiny-armed trainer telling you that the only way to get #jacked is through a daily donation of your own blood, sweat, and tears? 

Good Pain: Enjoy Your Stay in the Pain Cave 

While the idea of “good pain” may seem contradictory, good pain is, well, good! Discomfort is part of the process. A perfect example is hiking. Climbing uphill for hours is uncomfortable. (Relieving yourself in the woods where a bear might find you is also uncomfortable.) With that being said, the discomfort quickly fades when you summit a mountain; when your breath is swept away as you take on the life of a bird for a fleeting moment and tower above the vast meadows and lakes below. Unless you’ve pulled a muscle or the bear did in fact find you, chances are you are experiencing a good kind of pain. 

On a gym-related note, for muscle strength to increase and for muscle size to increase, good pain is part of the game. A mild burn in your muscles is good pain. After a long workout filled with burpees, sandbag throws, and tire flips, you’ll likely experience some fatigue. This is good pain if you are feeling tired yet invigorated. That fire in the lungs after a set of hill sprints? Good pain. Those mildly sore muscles you didn’t know existed following beginning a new fitness routine? Good pain. That tender sensation on your palms where calluses are beginning to form? Good pain. 

Pain is not always a sign for alarm. When training properly, it can be used as a great tool to measure overall progress and to figure out how your body best responds to certain stimuli. Pain is bad when it begins to affect your daily life or makes you dread every workout. 

Bad Pain: Cancel Your Pain Cave Reservations

Many in the fitness industry focus on muscles. This is understandable. It’s incredibly fun using our muscles. It’s a great feeling when a muscle begins to grow and definition begins to form. With that being said, our bodies are made up of more than just muscles. Bones, ligaments, tendons, and cartilage also need to be prioritized when training. Additionally, things like your adrenals, thyroid, and pituitary gland all need to be taken into consideration as well. This is why straddling that line between comfort and discomfort is so important; too much discomfort and your body will fight back. 

If you are experiencing severe delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that makes your quads tender to the touch, hitting the gym anyway for a solid squat session with the “no pain, no gain” mentality is not recommended. If you feel a weird pinching pain in your fifth rep of an eight-rep set, the “no pain, no gain” mentality is, again, not recommended. If you are so exhausted that your warmup fatigued you greatly, it’s best to toss “no pain, no gain” to the wayside. If you feel pain in your shoulder every time you press overhead, adopting the “no pain, no gain” mentality can result in permanent shoulder damage. 

The next time you’re at the gym, instead of “no pain, no gain,” adopt the mantra: “Good pain, go gain. Bad pain, abstain.”

Still on the fence? Here’s a handy infographic to help you out. Of course, when in doubt, it’s always best to speak with a medical professional. Chronic fatigue or a body that is slow to recover may point towards underlying medical issues that need to be addressed. Remember: you do this to live a long, happy, and healthy life. The ability to chase those gains will be there once you have recovered.