Pain and gain: Why always going hard might be diminishing the benefits of your training...

"No pain, no gain!!". If you stay around health and fitness people for long enough, you will eventually hear the infamous words that have become so synonymous with the industry.

From professional sport to the native "gym bro", the concept of painful training being the only road to the fabled "Rome" of training gains, is one that has existed for a very, very long time.

Every time the medias cameras are focused on a coach, athlete or any form of sport, someone is always talking about working "hard" or "tirelessly". Indeed, walk into any fitness centre and chat to most PT's for more than 5 minutes and I guarantee that the words "work hard" will come up.

As with most things, this hasn't evolved from pure fallacy. Clearly, in order to progress your body your have to challenge it, push it, break it a little bit...

However, all is most certainly not as it seems.

On the origins of overload

Image sourced from

To really understand where "no pain, no gain" comes from, I'll have to take you way back to ancient Greece.

The story goes that a young wrestler (and badass) Milo of Croton was able to carry a full grown bull on his shoulders (that's 1000 kilos or 2,200 lbs!) [1].

To achieve this incredible feat, Milo started carrying a newborn calf (around 30 kilos or 70 lbs) up a hill on his shoulders every day until it reached full maturity. Now lets be honest, lugging 30 kg up a hill on your back every day would be hard enough, without the progressive increase finishing at 1000 kg.

Clearly Milo had to endure some form of pain in order to achieve his brutal levels of strength. However, something is missing from this equation...


Bannister's model of fitness and fatigue

Bannisters 1982 model of fitness and fatigue

The whole concept of progression in training is based around what is known as general adaptation syndrome, originally described by Hans Selye in his 1956 book "The Stress of Life" [2]. In short general adaptation syndrome states that all stressors result in 3 universally distinct responses:

1. Alarm (negative response, fatigue from the stress)

2. Resistance (positive response, adapting to the stress)

3. Exhaustion (negative response, when stress exceeds adaptive reserves)

In 1982 Bannister expanded on this, changing it from three distinct phases into a model based around components he termed "Fitness" and "Fatigue" (see above) [3]. In this model Bannister's "Fitness" can be related to Selye's "Resistance" phase and "Fatigue" represented Selye's "Alarm" phase.

Bannister also noted the interaction of these two components to produce a "Performance" metric based on the sum of the positive fitness and the negative fatigue metrics. Importantly, Bannister also stipulated that different training stressors would elicit subtly different responses as apposed to the universal response put forward by Selye.

For example, below is an image of Paul Anderson completing his 2,850 kg back squat Guinness world record for "the greatest weight ever raised by a human being"[4].

Compared to your average gym bro's "hundy for 5" (100 kg x 5 reps for those unfamiliar with the lingo), it is pretty clear that the physiological response for these two loads will be different!

In essence, the larger the stimulus, the greater the "Fatigue" effect and the longer it lasts! However, the subsequent "Fitness" effect will also be far greater (see below).

Interaction between training stimulus, fatigue and adaptation

Over-training and super-compensation

So if you imagine that every individual has a "baseline" fitness and through training and adapting we are able to increase this baseline.

Tie that together with the concept that the harder we work the greater our fatigue and subsequent adaptation aaaaannnd it becomes very clear how the concept of "No pain, no gain" was born...

HOWEVER, and this is a big however, a bloody huge one in fact. You will NEVER experience the increased pay off from the extra fatigue if you do not allow your body time to adapt.

Below there are two graphs. On the green line, the person trains, waits an optimal amount of time and then trains again (at the peak of their adaptive period; we call this super-compensation).

This causes them to progress and end up with a higher level of performance than when they started. Happy.

On the red line, the person trains, then trains again too quickly (just after the fatigue has started to recover). This causes further fatigue causing performance to drop further. They then train again too early causing a further fall in fatigue.

Graphical representation performance change following differently timed training

If you think back to Selye's original model this reads very much like the exhaustion stage (not a great word to be associated with).

Thus, when they finally rest, they have trained so much that their final performance level ends up below baseline (over-training).

Now, while it seems trivial (we all feel exhausted at times right?) and is not necessarily dangerous when done acutely. Chronic exposure (over weeks and months) to this type of training regime can have some pretty big consequences.

The american college of sport medicine (ACSM) released a consensus statement on over-training and list; visible decrements in performance, mood disturbances, loss of sleep, hormonal imbalances (in extreme cases it can cause cessation of the menstrual cycle in women) and many more as the symptoms one can expect when over-trained [5].

So what have we learnt?

In summery:

1. Every training session elicits a "Fatigue" response where the body's resources are temporarily depleted to cope with the stressor.

2. In tandem with the "Fatigue" response there is also a "Fitness" response where your body adapts to cope with the new stressor it has been exposed to.

3. The magnitude and duration of these responses are linked to the initial stress you have been exposed to.

4. Training before the fatigue effect has adequately rescinded will result in accumulated fatigue and over time can lead to over-training.

5. Planning your training to coincide with your super-compensation peak will allow you to progress at the fastest rate.

Pain, gain and a little bit of restraint

So while it is entirely true that working hard (or painful training) will result in greater pay off in the long run, if you don't plan your training right and work too hard, too frequently, you will eventually find your tank comes up empty.

It would seem then, that good ol' Milo of Croton was a fraud. In reality he might have got the calf up the hill every day for a couple of weeks before eventually finding himself too worn out to even pick it up!

However (I know what you're thinking, again with the however card!), this is not to say that working hard a lot of the time is ALWAYS a bad thing...

It is important to remember that training is a massively INDIVIDUAL activity.

People react in very different ways, some will cope better with certain stimulus and worse with others. It is very important to listen to your body and monitor your individual training load to plan when and how to go hard!

Moreover, there are programs out there designed to induce, small and even large amounts amount of over-training (functional overreaching) in order to produce large super-compensation gains.

Remember though, these programs are often designed for people with advanced training ages and are often unsuitable for your average gym goer.

Also, these programs will need to be methodically planned and written by someone that really know what they're doing. If you still want to try one make sure you get a professional to write it for you.

American College of Sport Medicine's guidelines on, functional overreaching, non-functional overreaching and over-training syndrome [5]

So, that's me just about done. I hope you enjoyed it and if you take only three things from this piece remember these:

1. The harder your train the more you will get out of it

2. Plan rest into your training week, going hard on broken legs will only serve to snap them.

3. Respect the process, going hard once or twice randomly is not going to magically change your need to be consistent and have a plan if you're going to get better!


Next time

Next week we'll be testing 1RMs in SGPT so I'll be talking about the why, what and wherefores of rep max testing and how it will benefit your training moving forward. See you all same time, same place next week!



2. SELYE, H. 1956. The stress of life, New York, NY, McGraw-Hill.

3. BANNISTER, E. 1991. Modeling elite athletic performance. In: GREEN, H., MCDOUGALL, J. & WENGER, H. (eds.) Physiological testing of elite athletes. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.


5. MEEUSEN, R., DUCLOS, M., FOSTER, C., FRY, A., GLEESON, M., NIEMAN, D., RAGLIN, J., RIETJENS, G., STEINACKER, J. & URHAUSEN, A. 2013. Prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of the overtraining syndrome: joint consensus statement of the European College of Sport Science and the American College of Sports Medicine. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 45, 186-205.

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