I hate the cliché, “no pain, no gain.”
To be fair, I don’t have clichés in general. So “no pain, no gain” was already at a serious disadvantage. But what really ruined it was the fact that it’s counterproductive and untrue.
Saying there’s no gain without pain is blatantly false.
You don’t have to push through the pain to see results. In fact, pain is usually an indication that you need to slow down or stop. Or that you should have done so yesterday. Or a week ago. It’s not an indication that you need to buckle down, grit your teeth, and bear it.
Are there exceptions? Sure. Pushing through pain could be worth it if you’re a competitive athlete and gunning for gold.
But for us normal people, “playing” through pain is a bad idea—at the gym, on a run, or during a game of pickup basketball at the park.
And I want to show you how to avoid the pains while seeing all the gains.
A mindset that glorifies physical pain in the name of progress doesn’t make sense in the long run. Fitness is a marathon, not a sprint. Consistent effort year after year leads to big results, amazing transformations, and change that lasts.
I don’t want you merely transforming for a few weeks, months, or even years. I want you to transform for good.
The secret sauce to sustainable progress is consistency, but you can’t be consistent if you’re sidelined by injury. Here are a few sure-fire ways to help you avoid the pain.
Know Your Limits
I have unfortunate news. Your body isn’t invincible. This becomes increasingly obvious with age, but no matter how old you are, it’s clear. Do too much and you’ll pay the price. Working out is great until you take it too far and wind up with cripplingly sore muscles all week.
You can have too much of a good thing—especially when it comes to training.
Know your limits and then, don’t even push them the vast majority of the time. Seriously. Submaximal training consistently gets amazing results without driving your body into the ground.
For years, the 5/3/1 method has helped people get stupid strong. A ton of people—myself included. Part of the magic of the program is that it’s based on 90% of your max. In other words, unlike a lot of strength training programs, it isn’t based on your one-rep max. Instead, it’s based on submaximal loading.
Here’s what Jim says about it:
“You don’t need to operate at your max to increase your max. Why people get so bent out of shape about taking two steps back if it means they’ll be taking 10 steps forward is beyond me.”
You can shed fat, build muscle, and get strong without pain. Knowing your limits will help make that happen. But knowing them is half the battle. The second half, training hard within those limits, is the tricky part. Why? Because of people like showing off at the gym. Do this instead.
Check the Ego at the Door
Why do you train? Is it because you want to be the best version of yourself or is it because you want to be better than everybody else?
Sure, knowing you’re stronger than somebody else strokes that ego. But according to Ryan Holiday, “Ego is the enemy.” Plus, comparing two different people is anything but fair. If you catch yourself doing it, stop. When you walk into the gym, check your ego at the door.
It’s easier said than done, though. I mean, gyms are full of people at different fitness levels. There’s the dudebro repping the heaviest dumbbells you’ve ever seen and that girl warming up with what seems like a marathon on the treadmill. It’s impossible to not notice and compare yourself to what you see.
When your ego sees people crushing it at the gym, it gets bruised and looks to buoy itself back up. “At least I’m more fit than that person,” it might say. Or worse, it says, “don’t worry, I got this” with a weight that’s way too heavy.
It doesn’t care about the bad form, twinge in the back, or face contortion. The weight moved and the ego feels better about itself.
But remember, ego is the enemy.
To check it at the door, focus on the only comparison that matters—self-comparison. Don’t worry about being better than Jack or Jill, focus on being better than you were yesterday, last week, last month, and last year.
That’s what makes training meaningful.
It’s where the magic happens. Not only will you get results, but you’ll start to care much less about what other people do in the gym and more about what you’re doing. Your ego eventually fades and is replaced by intrinsic motivation to be your best self. It’s awesome.
You’re not at the gym to be a hero in any story besides your own. When you learn to check your ego at the door, you’re ready to take your workouts to the next level. How? By making them easier.
Regress Difficult Movements
Sometimes the best thing you can do to get better results is to regress the exercise. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true. There are two main reasons. But before diving in, we need to talk about what happens when people do an exercise that’s too difficult.
It’s simple, really. Bad form.
(Am I the only one who thinks of Hook whenever I hear bad form? Probably, but I love that movie.)
Lame jokes and digressions aside, the bad form that comes from doing a movement that needs regression can lead to serious problems that hurt your progress.
Even though you may be doing a more difficult exercise, it doesn’t always mean you’re getting better results.
If an exercise is too difficult and form breaks down, you’ll be worse off. At best, compensation takes over and you end up working—or overworking—muscles that shouldn’t even be involved in the movement. Instead of feeling those push-ups in the right places, your low back’s screaming and your neck’s tight. So much for working your chest.
Worse, yet, the bad form could land you a nasty injury and put you out of commission. Being unable to train for an extended period of time is a guaranteed way to bring your progress to a screeching halt. Even something as simple as a few days with a tweaked back can wreak havoc on your workout and stifle your progress.
To avoid pain (and even get better results), you need to do what’s best for you and your body. Sometimes that means simpler, regressed movements.
Seeing Gain Without Pain
Let’s be real, the main goal of any training program is the again. It doesn’t matter what gains mean to you, they’re the end and your workouts are the means. Maybe you want to lose fat, it could be building muscle, improving mobility, running a marathon—anything and everything.
You deserve to see again, get results, and improve. Even without the pain. A few simple principles will help ensure that happens.
Remember when we talked about how effective Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program is? Progressive overload is the secret sauce. It’s a simple concept and the cornerstone of all effective workout programs.
Basically, progressive overload involves gradually increasing the intensity of a training program to avoid plateaus and consistently get results.
In order for the body to continually adapt (lose fat, gain muscle, get stronger, or whatever else your goals might be), it needs a progressive training stimulus. Simply put, as you get more fit, your workout should get harder.
The key is the gradual progression. It’s progressive overload, not aggressive overload.
A 5/3/1 program does this methodically. It’s slow, it’s steady, and it works like a charm. Small progressions lead to big results over time. Applying progressive overload to your program is simple. Increase reps, sets, weight, or even decrease rest periods. Do something to take it up a notch each week and you’ll see the gain.
Remember to avoid pain as you progress your program—know your limits, ditch the ego, and regress movements as needed.
Quality Over Quantity
Time for a mildly embarrassing confession: I have a love-hate relationship with Tinder. There, I said it. I’m no swiping superstar by any means, but I enjoy it. Meeting new people is one of my favorite things in the world. And an app like Tinder gives me the opportunity to meet a ton of people.
But there’s a problem with a lot of quantity. Quality suffers.
Currently, I can count on one finger how many of my Tinder matches have actually turned into something mildly meaningful. Rich quantity, but sparse quality. It’s never worth it—with dating and even training.
I see quality sacrificed for quantity in the gym all the time.
Gotta get those reps, right? Not exactly. There’s actually nothing magical about three sets of 10. It’s a good jumping-off point for a lot of people, but it’s not some sort of perfect combination. No set and rep schemes are. Your sets and reps really don’t matter as much as people think.
Nine impeccable reps are better than 10 sloppy ones. Every. Single. Time.
Instead of looking at your sets and reps as hard doctrine, consider them guidelines and focus more on quality.
Don’t misconstrue. I’m not saying you should throw sets and reps out the window. But I am saying you don’t need to stress missing a rep or two for the sake of quality. If it happens, it’s okay. Simply adjust the weight accordingly when you’re consistently falling short on your reps or form degrades.
Progress Easy Movements
If there are regressions, there should be progressions as well. It’s all same but different. Sure, some movements need to be regressed. But in order to keep getting results, you want to progress others—namely the easy ones. Already a push-up pro, squat sensei, or burpee boss? Cool. Make it harder.
There are always ways to progress the movement (even without weights). A good program gets results. But a great workout program will incorporate potential progressions to maximize it.
When an exercise gets too easy, it’s time to find a progression. Without progression, you’ll get stuck on plateaus.
To see gains (and avoid pain), you need to do what’s best for you and your body. Sometimes that means more difficult, progressed movements.