Is It Really “No Pain, No Gain”?

Imagine for a moment you got the chance to drive your dream sports car. As you sit in the drivers seat, you can feel the engine roar beneath your feet. Your body is pulled back into the seat as you step on the accelerator.

Sports Car.jpgAfter a few hours of driving you glance at the dashboard and notice the engine warning light popped on. You start to freak out a little. This is a very powerful and expensive car. It’s supposed to be driven hard! Right?

What do you do?

Your body is a beautiful sports car. PAIN is your body’s engine warning light. This scenario is common for all athletes regardless of experience and skill level.

How Do We Currently Deal With Pain

 Athletes will do anything to compete and perform at their best. When it comes down to competition day, many will ‘bite the bullet’ and push through pain. We’ve been told our entire lives that it’s “No Pain, No Gain.”

American society is great at living this “No Pain, No Gain” mantra. We do our best to mask or cover up pain. We wrap our ankles before games, wear knee braces and take pain killers with the hopes of keeping the pain at bay. Although this allows many of us to compete day in and day out, it’s a double edge sword.

Exericse Push (4).jpg

The temporary solutions for dealing with pain during competition have become permanent fixtures in the daily training practices of many athletes. I often find athletes routinely having to use topical creams, Advil, and fancy taping methods just to get through a training session.

In today’s society we’re constantly barraged with marketing ploys telling us that pain shouldn’t sideline us. They portray back pain, aching wrists, and throbbing shoulders as nothing more than an inconvenience to your busy life. By taking their pills or using electrical stimulation, you can fight off pain and return to your recreational activities. However, have you ever taken a step back to think about the long-term consequences of this route?

What is Pain?

Pain alerts us to the fact that there may be bodily harm going on (5). Pain is often described as a sharp, stabbing or throbbing sensation. It can be located deep inside a muscle or centered on a joint. It often occurs due to overuse, poor technique and inflammation. Pain does NOT get better with proper warm up and mobility work.

Pain is NOT soreness. We need to make this very clear. Muscle soreness, unlike pain, will almost always get better after warming up well. Sore muscles is a natural process of training. If foam rolling and proper warm up can decrease and eliminate your symptoms, you’re not in pain. You can keep training hard. You’re just sore.

When Pushing Through Pain Goes Wrong

Why is pushing through pain so harmful? There are a few reasons. First, pain is a warning sign of current or potential damage to your body (5). Yes, there will be times when pushing through pain is part of being an athlete. Let’s go back to our car analogy for a second. A NASCAR driver isn’t going to pull over on the last few laps of the Indy 500 if the engine warning light pops on. He’s going to push through the “pain” and finish the race.

While you can get away with pushing through pain during competition every once and a while, constantly doing so during training can be detrimental to your body. Physical Therapist Gray Cook says that using temporary fixes to address pain outside of the competition arena is like putting a piece of black tape over your car’s engine warning light. Ignoring it doesn’t change the fact that it’s on. If you push hard enough in the presence of pain, it’s going to push back. This is when injuries occur.

Exercise Push (3.jpg

Pain also changes the way you move (1,6). This is your body’s subconscious effort to protect itself from injury. Pain effects coordination and the efficiency of your movement (2,3,4). It will limit your mobility and diminish your strength.

Knee Valgus

This has dramatic effects on barbell movements. Trying to push through pain, especially while trying to lift heavy weight will only make things worse.


Final Thoughts

Too often we think pain is an inconvenience. We want to cover it up, pretend its not there and move on with our lives. Don’t ignore the signs with your own body. Learn to embrace pain as chance to fix your body so it can run for a long time safely.

For the next few weeks, we will discuss common injuries with squatting. We will also talk about treatment strategies, prevention and eventually maintenance. We will cover knee, hip and low back pain as well as the dreaded “butt wink”.

Until next time,

Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT, DPT, CSCS, USAW


Kevin Photo
Dr. Kevin Sonthana, PT, DPT, CSCS


  1. Woodhouse A, Vasseljen O. Altered motor control patterns in whiplash and chronic neck patients. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2008 Jun. 20;9:90.
  2. Madeleine P, Mathiassen SE & Arendt-Nielsen L. Changes in the degree of motor variability associated with experimental and chronic neck-shoulder pain during a standardized repetitive arm movement. Exp Brain Res. 2008. 185:689-698
  3. Tucker KJ & Hodges PW. Changes in motor unit recruitment strategy during pain alters force direction. European Journal of Pain. 2010;14:932-938
  4. Murray GM, Peck CC. Orofacial pain and jaw muscle activity: a new model. J Orofac Pain 2007;21(4):263–78
  5. Loeser JD & Melzack R. Pain: an overview. The Lancet. May 8, 1999. 353: 1607-09
  6. van Dieen JH, Selen LP, Cholewicki J. Trunk muscle activation in low-back pain patients, an analysis of the literature. J Electromyogr Kinesiol 2003;13(4):333–519

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