No Pain, No Gain is a Lie, part 1

*This is an excerpt from my book, “Fitness without Fear”. If you are interested in signing up for pre-sales (no obligation), fill out the following form: Fitness without Fear

In 2014, high intensity interval training (HIIT) debuted at the number one worldwide fitness trend in the American College of Sports Medicine Health and Fitness Journal. It has held at least a top 5 spot ever since.(1)  Despite what the experts know and practice, the current fitness trends focus primarily on high intensity workouts that have the exerciser open the throttle all the way and keep it there. High intensity boot camp style classes deliver the sweat-soaked, muscle straining, exhausting experience that most people associate with a “good workout”: sweat, pain, suffering, and fatigue as the ultimate goal. Shows like “The Biggest Loser” have helped propagate the idea that exercising to the point of exhaustion is the only way to be successful. This is not only false, this approach to fitness is responsible for a large number of sports injuries and burnout, especially among those new to fitness. (2,3)

The problem with these high intensity style workouts is that their primary goal is not skill development, it is to induce fatigue. Fatigue can be a useful marker during a workout that can tell you when you need to decrease weight, intensity, or even call it a day. Fatigue is a warning sign that we must pay close attention to as it usually means we may be compromising correct posture and movement and that our coordination is not optimal and can actually hinder or even reverse good skill development. Understanding how to work with fatigue is important, but it should very rarely be the primary goal of a training session. Pushing yourself to the limit in a state of fatigue is a recipe for disaster that can have long-lasting repercussions. Good coaches and trainers know that this kind of training is unnecessary and has a high risk to benefit ratio.

If instead, you use your time wisely to invest in building a strong foundation of fitness, it will serve you far better in the long run than the slapdash approach of doing everything, really hard, until you run out of gas or get hurt. The body can only recover from so much and remember, unless your goal is for your life to revolve around going to the gym and recovering from having gone to the gym, there is simply no need to constantly grind yourself into paste. More importantly, a hard hour at the gym a day does relatively nothing if we spend the rest of the day sitting on the couch or in our office chairs. This is another reason we shouldn’t be doing workouts that are “all out” every day. We should have enough energy left over and be comfortable enough to keep moving as that is what keeps our bodies and brains as healthy as possible. Although exercise sessions are part of our daily activity, their main purpose is to build us a more powerful engine that is fuel efficient and resistant to breaking down. Exercise builds your engine. Using your engine regularly is what keeps you healthy.

I have had multiple clients who don’t consider it a good training session unless they were exhausted when they left the gym and were sore for the next three days. That may be fine for the first two weeks of starting a new program, but if you are exhausted and sore after every workout, you are likely not getting what you actually need from your training sessions: skill development.

What would you say if I were told you that it’s possible to push your limits in a way that doesn’t leave you at death’s doorstep after a long workout? You have every right to be skeptical right now, but hear me out – by focusing on developing your skills and improving the quality of your workouts, you’ll actually see desired results quicker than you would with painful, high-intensity workouts.

Don’t believe me? Let me explain.

If we go back to the training adaptations we discussed in Chapter One, we must remember two things. One is that strength improvements are primarily neurological and based on learning and practicing good technique. When you train to fatigue every workout, you are only going to be learning those unoptimal positions and movements where you aren’t fully coordinated. Repeating movements with form that is breaking down only reinforces poor muscle recruitment, bad technique, and puts more wear and tear on joints. Additionally fatigue has a high recovery cost. It doesn’t just affect your muscles, it affects your nervous system, which takes a bit longer than your muscles to recover. If you aren’t adequately recovered when you go into your next training session, your coordination will be suboptimal and you won’t be getting in the quality work you need to continue to make progress.

The second thing to remember is that for cardiovascular fitness and endurance, the most important factor is the ability to sustain work over time. Like with strength training, we want to maintain consistent form to reduce wear and tear on our joints so we must be working at an intensity that allows us to do that for 30-60 minutes at a time. Shorter workouts, regardless of intensity, just don’t deliver the same benefits.

Interestingly, although people think that no pain, no gain is THE most important aspect of high level fitness and performance, when you talk with the coaches who are training the best athletes in the world, you will find that they have a very different opinion and consequently, a very different approach to training. (To be continued . . . )

  1. Thompson, Walter R. “WORLDWIDE SURVEY OF FITNESS TRENDS FOR 2018: The CREP Edition.” ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal 21, no. 6 (2017).
  2. Rynecki ND, Siracuse BL, Ippolito JA, Beebe KS. Injuries sustained during high intensity interval training: are modern fitness trends contributing to increased injury rates?. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2019;59(7):1206-1212. doi:10.23736/S0022-4707.19.09407-6,shoulders%2C%20a%20Rutgers%20study%20found.
  3. Iowa State University. “High-intensity workouts won’t work for most people.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 October 2017. <>

One comment

  1. Beautifully written, Sara.

    Such quiet confidence, and deep knowledge of your subject! Impressive and intriguing, I look forward to reading more.

    Meantime, please be careful with those heavy weights, not to mention phone poles? I worry about your back.

    Best & xoxoxo,



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