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NO PAIN, NO GAIN.

An expression that perpetuates the fitness industry, and the attitudes and philosophy of many gym-goers, and even professionals.

Believe it or not, one of our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, coined this terms by stating “There are no gains without pains” (source). More recently, Jane Fonda made the “No pain, no gain” attitude popular in the 1980’s, thanks to her workout videos stating “Feel the burn” (source).

Regardless of the source’s origin, this “no pain, no gain” doctrine is no more prevalent than in the lifting community and those hoping to get “BIG” and “STRONG.”

Under this attitude of training, exercises are often taken to failure, pushing beyond the pain response of muscle and the body, in order to make “GAINS.” Whether it is trying to do as many reps as possible (AMRAP) to failure, or trying to break a PR every-time someone hits the gym, this “no pain, no gain” attitude perpetuates lifting.

Nowadays, this philosophy continues on through the likes of popular fitness voices, such as CT Fletcher, and his no excuses and tough-nosed training philosophy.

Watch his “I Command You to Grow” videos, and you will see the intensity of his training, and where “no pain, no gain” fits in.

I love his intensity and my stance is not to discredit CT Fletcher, or others, and their hard work, and everything they have gone through and what they necessarily preach. I think CT Fletcher is great, but let’s be honest…there is only one CT Fletcher. If you watched his documentary on Netflix, entitled My Magnificent Obsession, you’ll understand and probably feel inspired and motivated to kick some ass in the gym and throw away any excuses, including any pain.

That said, to believe the “no pain, no gain” philosophy is the ONLY way to build muscle, increase strength, and improve performance is a fallacy.

If you want to break your body then this is a good philosophy to have.

However, if you want to be efficient with your gains, and minimize injuries, participating in the sub-maximal training philosophy is a great training method solution.

This is why I’d like you to have an open mind and reconsider the notion of the “NO PAIN, NO GAIN” attitude of training to failure and having to “HURT” yourself to build strength and add lean muscle mass to your frame.

This is not the case. That is why I am going to advocate the idea of SUB-MAXIMAL TRAINING to increase strength and add muscle, as superior to brute force ALONE.

What is SUB-MAXIMAL training?

In short, sub-maximal training is working in a moderate, or medium, percentage of your one-rep max (1RM) in an exercise, most often the squat, deadlift, bench press, or overhead press, to add strength and muscle by focusing on technique, while minimizing injury.

Simple as that.

What are the parameters?

  • The intensity, or WEIGHT, is typically within the neighborhood of 60% to 85% of your 1RM in a lift.
  • Reps are between 1 to 5, or even up to 6 or 8, depending on the percentage and focus (i.e. strength, power, hypertrophy, etc.).
  • Sets are usually between 5 to 10 working sets; meaning: the sets that matter and really count lie within the range you are working at (60% to 85%). These are your “working sets”. 
  • Each rep of every set should be done with the best technique and form you can possibly use to build efficiency.
    • THINK: “PERFECT REPS”.
  • Your working sets should not be “GRINDERS.”
    • This means that the successful completion of a repetition in a lift should not be so exhaustive to the point where you might fail, like any wobbling, shaking, instability, etc., that causes excessive breakdown in your technique.
    • If this is the case, you need to modify the intensity (weight), reps, or sets to avoid grinders.

      This thought — not having excessive grinders — is extremely important because one of the biggest tenets of sub-maximal training is injury prevention, and “grinders” do not fit this training style.

Again, the GOAL of sub-maximal training is to get a desired strength and muscle building effect without breaking your body for more than what is required by using an effective dosage weight (60% to 85% of 1RM).

For example, let’s say you can bench press 225 pounds for your 1RM. Based on this number, you would work in the neighborhood of 135 pounds and 185 pounds (~60-85%). Based on this example, your working sets might consist of doing 5 sets of 5 at 155 pounds. Your goal here, and every-time, is to do PERFECT REPS by focusing on technique and using as much muscle that should be involved. This includes any variation you might do, like a paused bench press.

This allows a stimulus to build strength and improve performance while minimizing the chance for injury, like those “grinders”.

Is Sub-maximal training too easy?

No.

Sub-maximal training is not easier.

In fact, it is probably harder than going in the gym and trying to break your 1RM every-time.

Why?

Because thought is given on technique first, which requires great concentration and the development of proper movement patterns to do so. This helps you think about using all the muscles that you should be using, and if not, you are actively working on it by training at a moderate load to improve and overcome any deficiencies. Eventually, you progress and go up from there.

During this process, you will improve your neuromuscular control (how well you are able to move in an exercise, or movement) which helps increase strength. This is because the better your central nervous system (CNS) can work, in theory, the more potential you have at using, and working on, as much muscle as available. This leads to strength and hypertrophy gains, aiding in the pursuit of adding lean muscle mass to your frame.

In addition, sub-maximal training is essentially the meat and potatoes of your training. It will be the bulk of your training that is going give you the most of your desired results: building strength, muscle, athleticism, aesthetics, etc. If you are consistently going in the gym to break a PR, I can guarantee you that you will break first. No question.

I hate saying absolutes, but if you want to fight the weight every-time you workout and break a PR, you will lose…EVERY-TIME.

Where you win is being smart and that is why sub-maximal training is so beneficial to building strength and muscle because you avoid unnecessary damage to your body. This increases the longevity of your lifting career because it makes it more sustainable long-term. This will aid your pursuit of trying to get as strong as possible because a more healthy body can lift more weight.

Period.

Is There Value to No Pain, No Gain?

Short answer, yes.

Butttt…there’s a limit.

The issue is that many take it to far and push and push and push, leading to a breaking point — literally.

At the end of the day, progress is what matters, especially if you plan on increasing your strength, and overall fitness. Trying to have the best workout ever or beat your previous 1RM every-time you go in the gym does not lead to good and efficient progress, especially in the long-term. This is where sub-maximal training comes into the picture, and the “no pain, no gain” dogma stops.

Sub-maximal training gives you efficient progress by building your body up with control and not chaos. The notion of having to “feel” sore the next day is the absolute worst measurement of progress and if you are getting stronger.

A much better way to measure strength is how your body feels week-to-week and comparing numbers from one training cycle to the next.

This, however, does not excuse you from working hard and lifting with intensity when you workout. This is a must, and a given. Let’s not confuse that thought. What is important, however, is that you balance and temper your intensity and not let it consume you to the  point of breaking — what no pain, no gain is about.

Will you never feel pain when you lift?

Of course, not. Let’s not be naive.

You’re going to bang your body up no matter what…shit just happens.

However, working beyond minor aches and pains is one thing, but working through excessive pain where you feel it during your workout even though you have adrenaline and other fight or flight hormones running through your body is another thing. If that is the case stop or you will cause more damage to whatever is hurting, and further break your body.

The point is to not have serious injury and that is where no pain, no gain fails.

Conclusion

There is a time to be aggressive and fired-up and lift the bar and weight with no holds bar. That is one thing I like about “no pain, no gain” because it teaches you not to be a “pussy.” You need that because you are not in the gym to feel pampered and comforted. The gym is not a spa. The gym is a place to abuse your body in a controlled fashion that makes you stronger than when you came in.

But, let’s be smart about it and not take it to extremes.

That is why sub-maximal training is so effective in leading to strength and muscle gains, and improving your overall fitness during the process because it is a measured approach fueled with intensity to lift your best.

It is really that simple.

It provides balance in your training leading to tremendous results.

Even the boys from Westside Barbell understood the need for a balanced approach by incorporating measured resting periods of de-load for the body to recover throughout their training cycles.

Point is to be balanced.

Remember, those times that call for the type of aggression of “no pain, no gain” come up only once in awhile. For example, a powerlifting meet, or some sort of competition, or just to find out where you stand for your general strength training. What is important, is that most of the time, let’s say 80 to 90% of the time, you are going to be working in sub-maximal ranges to build your base strength, and put on lean muscle mass.

If you do not believe me just look at bodybuilders. They are jacked and they really do not lift heavy often. They focus on the contraction of the muscles in lighter loads to get a hypertrophic effect at building muscle using the mind-muscle connection. Why would that be different when building strength?

It is not too far off, and you only need to change certain parameters and exercises to focus on to do so.

Control your aggression for no pain, no gain in the sub-maximal philosophy and it will take you far.

Let me know what you think.

As always, thanks for stopping by and reading. If not a subscriber subscribe.

Until next time, be strong and be you!

Extra

For more resources on sub-maximal training click the links below:

Submaximal loads for Maximal Results

Juggernaut Training Systems

Submaximal training experimented on collegiate football players

(Photo Credit)

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One thought on “Re-thinking the “No Pain, No Gain” Notion for Strength: A Case for Sub-maximal Training

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