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Get Off The Pain Train

“Go hard or go home “

“No pain no gain”

“Pain is weakness leaving the body”

“The pain you feel today will be the strength you feel tomorrow”

“Pain is temporary but quitting lasts forever”

“The grind”

“Feel the burn”

With all of these sayings and phrases about pain and training, it’s hard to believe that getting fit and improving health will be anything but an arduous, uncomfortable, and, quite frankly, miserable experience. How did we get to this mindset though? Is it true, and when, if ever, do we need pain? And what does it all mean for the ways we approach training?

First and foremost, and in the interest of full disclosure, I have come to a lot of the following thoughts by making almost every mistake I detail in this post. Hopefully this will help you learn from my mistakes! 

Somewhere along the line in our early ages we were punished for some alleged wrong doing, say for example stealing a cookie and being sent to time out. This strategy of “misbehavior” and punishment to correct the indiscretion became an ingrained way of treating what we viewed as negative actions.


Condition this response into an individual, fast forward a few years and add a sedentary lifestyle and few extra pounds, and what you get is a human being who believes they need to be punished for allowing themselves to “misbehave” and fall out of health. So when this person decides it’s time for a change to their physical self, given the model outlined above for treating poor behavior, they will only feel like progress can occur if there is pain, discomfort, and anguish, i.e. punishment.

Given the way punishment was learned at a young age, it becomes comforting to think that by grinding themselves to a pulp during a workout they have improved and again made themselves good. Additionally, given the media influences of things like The Biggest Loser, CrossFit, and Insanity, popular culture was shown an image of fitness that was hyper intense, brutal, and sometimes, in the case of The Biggest Loser, emotionally demeaning. People were lead to believe that physical transformations and fitness only worked and were only worthwhile if it was punishing.

This was a perfect storm, a society as unfit as ever and needing a change, and a cultural perception of exercise as miserable and painful, feeding the believed need for punishment that must result in a restoration of health.

For the purpose of this post, an athlete is anyone who is training regularly. In the case of the majority of athletes: intense, grinding training paradigms simply aren’t necessary. There are some athletes who do, given their level of competition and the nature of their sport, need exposure to training at the upper limits of their capacity.

However, for 99% of athletes, this simply isn’t the case. The majority, who are training to lead higher quality lives and improve their health, will be better suited to following a plan that allows them to make slow, steady progress. After all, when you’re training for a higher quality life it is important to consider that you want that high quality of life to last the duration of your time on earth. However, when an athlete applies too heavy of weights, too much speed, too high a volume of training early on, or training to failure, the potential dangers far outweigh the potential short-term gains. This, “too much too soon,” approach may lead to problems such as injuries, development of bad and unsafe movement patterns, systematic shock, or undue levels of fatigue, all of which decrease quality of life and ability to train. Additionally, bodies will adapt to what they constantly do. It is possible to train a body to fail movements and it is increasingly likely that this will happen when intensity, volume, and time are not adequately managed.

As a coach, I’d be much happier to know that someone is following a plan that allows them to comfortably train three to four days a week, than one that allows them to go all-out only once or twice.

A simple example to illustrate this is in a lifter who may be able to produce a 1 rep-max squat of 100lbs. If that person is able to come in and train three times in one week at 60% of that 100lbs for 3 sets of 10 reps, then at the end of the week that person will have performed 90 reps of 60lbs in the squat, or 5400lbs of total work (90 reps performed in the week x 60lbs each rep).

However, if that person trains twice a week at 95% intensity for 3 sets of 3 reps, then they will accomplish only 18 reps of 95lbs, or 1710lbs of total work (18 reps performed in the week x 95lbs each rep). Additionally, maintaining proper form and movement with 60% max effort is significantly more likely than maintaining good movements with 95% effort. When it comes to making progress, consistency is the name of the game, not intensity, at least not early on in the process.

Initially, when someone begins working out and taking fitness seriously, there is a massive desire to see improvement, either on the scale, or in the weight on the bar, or the time on the clock. While these improvements do come, during the early stages of training, when movements are a priority, what is happening is an incredible amount of neurological adaptation. These changes to the central nervous system are crucial! The way your body begins creating neurological connections between brain and muscle will set the stage of future successes. Learning to move well, utilizing the proper musculature and positioning, and having these patterns become second nature (muscle memory) are what will enable amazing fitness performances in the later phases of training. A stronger foundation of movements from the body will allow for more strength and skill to be built upon it later. 

Training does not need to be painful to be effective, especially early in the training stages (the first year or two). Actually, training that is too high on the intensity scale will be a detriment. This does not however mean that training won’t be challenging! Learning how to move properly, with control and grace, through a proper range of motion in the presence of resistance is a demanding process, and one that takes time and concentration. To do this, an athlete must be humble and self-aware enough to take a step back from the heaviest weights they can move, and instead adopt a mindset of technical mastery.

Learning how to first move your body properly, developing an understanding and sense of how your body reacts to training, and what might be any potential weak links in your training game, so to speak, are far more important than any PR’s or crazy max efforts. The best training approach is always a crawl, walk, run approach in order to create the most success.

Life is stressful to your body and, no surprises here, so is training. Your nervous system does not distinguish between life stress (late for work, relationship disputes, deadlines, etc.) and weight training stress. This competition for neurological resources is why some days an exercise such as pull-ups feel like butter, and others they feel like someone turned the gravity up to 10. If you are pushing your training to the max, while also living an active life with even a normal level of stressors, you are going to be much more likely to burn out than if you maintain a challenging level of training but are being mindful of your body’s need to recover. In fact, sub-maximal training may actually act as a bit of a tonic to the nervous system, releasing those ever-pleasant endorphins and alleviate some of that everyday life stress.

What does all this mean to your training, and how can you apply it? Emphasize movements! Set technique PRs, ask coaches how something looks or if you’re supposed to be feeling it in a certain area, know that it is OKAY to lower the weight. Also, if a coach recommends lowering a weight, that is a not a demotion or a punishment, but rather an opportunity to improve your form. This is not an opportunity to train lazily and slack off, quite the opposite. Rather this is an open challenge to push yourself mentally as much as physically. Perfect the practice of movement and trust the process of moving well, and in the long run that will lead to moving well with massive strength!!

Lastly, if something hurts, a knee, shoulder, ribs, etc. please(!!!) tell a coach. Unfortunately, there are not points for toughing it out, but there are plenty of opportunities to get injured and further set back. Lower the weight, change the exercise, move well and live to train another day!

“Happiness is not a matter of intensity, but of balance, order, rhythm, and harmony”

-Thomas Merton


Learn more about getting fit with the Unify Approach, a new, four-part fitness methodology.  

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1 comment

May 25, 2016 • Posted by Lindsey

Ted, this is awesome! So many great points. Thank you for sharing.

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