Ending the “No Pain, No Gain” Mindset
Let’s End The “No Pain, No Gain” Mentality
I’m inspired to write this post because I’ve worked with many fitness-minded clients who ultimately want to be fit and healthy, but have absorbed a “no pain, no gain” mentality due to messaging from the fitness industry and end up hurting themselves. This is due to “norms” that have been deemed socially acceptable to believe. And I’d like to challenge them.
I want to reiterate that I, too, have been guilty of falling into all of these beliefs, which is why I want to shed light on them. I don’t think it’s productive to “shame” people or organizations who do believe these things, but I want to share what I have learned throughout my fitness and physical therapy experiences.
So let’s get to it and shed some light on these seven harmful beliefs the exercise industry has sold us on:
#1: You have to do cardio to be thin or lose fat
This derives from the message that you need to torch hundreds of calories in order to have a productive workout. I don’t deny that your calories in have to be less than your calories out to lose fat, but relying on endless cardio to create your caloric deficit can cause more harm than good.
If you follow me, you know I’m not a huge fan of cardio as my primary source of exercise. Most cardio exercises (like running) place repetitive forces through your joints, which will wear down your joints over time. Not only this, but cardio doesn’t focus on building muscle.
Even if you burn 500 calories in your workout, it’s still only a fraction of what you’re burning throughout the day to keep you breathing and alive. So, to lose fat AND protect your joints, create a body that burns more calories resting (i.e., by improving your resting metabolic rate).
How do you do that?
Focus on building muscle rather than burning calories.
It seems counter-intuitive, but building muscle is more effective at creating a lean body than cardio. An increase of muscle mass takes more energy to sustain, thus increasing your resting metabolic rate (the energy required or calories burned to keep you alive).
Having muscle mass will ultimately lead to a healthier body for numerous reasons, including:
- increased metabolism
- improved joint health
- improved tendon and bone strength
- and more!
Not only does strength and resistance training help protect your joints, but it helps keep you lean and gives you more freedom with what you can eat!
Not only is it more effective to focus on building muscle for your physical health, but for your mental health as well. Focusing on burnt calories as a metric can breed guilt and shame, ultimately leading to an unhealthier state of being.
I’m not bringing all this up because I want you to shift from one obsession to another. I just want to give you some background on why exclusively doing cardio, or doing cardio as your primary source of exercise, isn’t healthy for the long-term. I do not intend to shame you if you do cardio, but I want to explain the benefits of building muscle, which is often not an idea sold from the fitness industry.
#2: You have to work out for an hour, or you didn’t do enough
This is another potentially destructive belief, and we’ve all had days where our bodies don’t feel their best. Your brain will often give you “warning signs” or outputs that look like tightness, pain, fatigue, etc. when it senses something is wrong. Your brain gives you these outputs because it’s trying to signal to you that you need to listen and give yourself space to heal and rest.
When you have days like this, a 60-minute hard-hitting workout will often do more harm than good. You could be blowing past your body’s natural protective mechanisms that are designed to keep you safe. When you take the time to listen to what your body is telling you, you may find that maybe a 20-minute pilates workout is what your body is craving. It’s all individual, but don’t feel like you have to force yourself to exercise for the full hour if it feels like hammering a peg in a square hole.
Sometimes you only need five minutes to get your body moving and feel strong. Try this 5-minute abdominal routine or this 10-minute mobility if today is one of those days. OR try this low back-friendly heavy leg workout if your back feels tight or sore.
#3: It feels good, so it must be right.
This is a big misconception and comes in many different forms. Commonly, my clients with chronic pain tell me “I feel good while I’m working out, so I don’t understand why I’m in pain.”
There are many metabolic pathways triggered during exercise, which can increase endorphins and essentially change your overall experience during a workout. The danger with this is that many people do not notice the small damage they are doing during a workout, because endorphins like adrenaline are masking their pain.
For example, an athlete gets injured during a sporting event and doesn’t feel the injury until they notice they are bleeding.
The same thing can happen when you’re drinking. You feel amazing while you’re drunk, but terrible later.
This is another reason I don’t love frequent cardio. When you do cardio, you increase endorphins in your body, masking you from feeling the micro-traumas occurring in your joints. I believe moving slowly and minimizing the risk vs. reward scenario in each exercise is a great way to determine what your body is experiencing in real-time.
I also see the “it feels good” misconception with stretching. If you follow me on Instagram, you know I’m not a huge fan of stretching. I don’t think it’s bad, but it’s not worth emphasizing or prioritizing because it’s addressing a symptom (tightness) rather than what’s actually causing the tightness (instability). I did a blog post on the research around stretching here, and another on why stretching won’t solve your tightness, here. Take a look, it might surprise you.
#4: It’s not functional, so why would I do it?
This could also be an entirely different discussion. And this part will get a little more technical so bear with me.
I am all for functional movements, however, I don’t think exclusively using functional movement for exercise is the only way you should exercise.
Creating strong individual parts of the whole body is vital to strength training, and I’ll tell you why.
First, let’s talk about what functional exercise is. Functional exercise essentially means that you’re practicing movements that you would do in your everyday life. A squat is a good example because you have to squat up and down several times throughout your day. Each time you get in and out of a chair, you’re essentially doing a squat.
BUT here’s my issue with this. A squat is a full-body movement, which means each body part you would use to perform a squat needs to be strong to tolerate high repetition and/or heavyweight without getting injured.
This means that you need to have the following components in order to safely perform squats:
- Ankle mobility
- Ankle and foot stability
- Knee range and stability
- Hip stability
- Lower back and SI stability
- Mid-back stability
- Core strength
- Quad strength (both eccentric and concentric)
- Lower back strength and control
- And the list goes on…
This means that your nervous system has to keep track of A LOT.
We’ve seen time and time again that if we give our brains too much to focus on, it can cancel out how well we perform certain tasks and the benefits. Your output will tank when you try to focus on too much at once, which can leave you vulnerable to injury. Focusing on less it not only safer, but it is also more effective.
Although it’s important for motor learning and control to practice tasks that you’re doing in everyday life, I think it is equally, if not more important, to do more isolated work.
Working on separate parts of the whole will ensure that you can do a squat with each piece working as it should. So you DO have the quad and hamstring control, the ankle/foot strength, and the lower back strength and stamina to perform a squat safely. If you have stronger quads, you’re going to be better at squatting. If you have a stronger low back, you’re going to be better at squatting. And the list goes on.
I believe breaking the whole into parts and biasing muscle groups while stabilizing other joints is an effective way to improve your overall function and joint health while reducing the risk of injury.
#5: Girls shouldn’t lift weights, or they will bulk up.
This goes back to my belief that more muscle leads to a leaner body and healthier joints for the long-term. I’ll keep this brief because I’d love to talk to an expert about hormones soon, but genetics play a large part in your ability to gain bulk. If you’re not naturally a muscular person, it will be tough for you to gain “bulk.” For most women to look “bulky”, their diet has to change dramatically.
So continue to work towards building muscle, and you will end up leaning out!
#6: The term “Problem Areas”
The fitness industry has lead us to believe that you should work on your “problem areas” and ignore the rest.
I hate that the term “problem areas” is even an accepted term to use. This term implies that if you have a little fat in a certain area of your body, it is a “problem,” and you need to do targeted exercises to solve it.
There are several things to unmask here:
1. You should not be calling ANY part of your body a “problem” because it has a little fat in a certain area. This comes from the negative fitness message that having any fat is a problem in the first place. If you continue to see your body in this way, you will continue further down a path where you will never be satisfied with the outcomes.
2: You cannot target fat loss in your body. Doing bicep curls will not make your arms skinnier. Fat is stored in different areas of your body, and fat loss happens systematically (throughout your whole body), not only in the parts you choose to exercise.
3: Targeting one area of your body repetitively can lead to overuse injuries. For example, working your abs every day is a lot of repetitive trunk flexion, which is not great for your back in the long-term.
4: By working on your “problem areas,” you’re probably neglecting key muscles. For example, many women don’t want their calves to be big so they don’t perform exercises to strengthen them. Neglecting to work your calf muscles could affect the health of your knees over time. If you’re always working your thighs but not balancing that by forming calf strength, you can develop uneven forces through your knees. This can ultimately lead to injuries.
When you favor certain areas and ignore others, it can lead to an imbalance in your overall body.
#7: Exercise is my mental health therapy
Exercise for mental health can be a supplement, but not a substitute.
Mental health is not within my scope, but it’s almost impossible to participate in the exercise world without addressing this misconception.
I think the sentiment that exercise can improve your mental health is well-intended, but it does not mean that exercise is a healthier alternative to maintain mental health.
Exercise, similar to drugs/food/alcohol/therapy/music/etc., produces chemical changes that make us feel good in our bodies. These endorphins allow us to feel relief from our previous state of anxiety, depression, etc.
However, this relief effect is only temporary. When the effects of the endorphins wear off, you will often return to your baseline anxious self.
This is where exercise can become harmfully addictive. Exercise can produce a feeling inside your body that helps you temporarily escape your anxious feelings, much like a drug. Anxiety is uncomfortable for most people, and we use exercise when we want to escape from it; instead of dealing with the underlying thoughts that are actually causing our anxiety.
Exercising as therapy for mental health can temporarily relieve a symptom, but will not address or cure its cause. Often, we will exercise harder and harder, looking for mental relief and a sense of control, even at the sake of injuring our bodies. Therefore it can be harmful to use the “high” of exercise to give us temporary anxiety relief because it will never provide an end.
I’d love to see some of these beliefs begin to shift and change over time, and it starts with us educating ourselves on the background behind these beliefs. By questioning and challenging what we’ve been socialized to believe about our bodies, we can eventually decide if we want to continue endorsing these beliefs or make a change in how we approach our health and exercise.
Questions? Anything I missed? Comment below and let’s chat! Thank you so much for reading.