Jan 29, 2015
No Pain, No Gain?

By Vern Gambetta Gambetta Sports Training Systems

No pain, no gain was a very prevalent attitude when I began coaching in the late 60s and surprisingly it continues to persist today. I personally have never been able to figure out the appeal of this approach.

Proper training in the weightroom or on the field demands that the athlete be pushed to test their limits. Some workouts are very difficult and other workouts will almost seem easy. This ebb and flow of hard efforts interspersed with easier efforts is essential allow for proper adaptation.

I really think the no pain, no gain approach is a direct outgrowth of the fact that historically strength & conditioning was a field driven by football. It was the football strength & conditioning coach who set the tempo for the programs because they were often the head strength coach.

The mastodon mentality that pervaded football in the 50s and the 60s served to reinforce the no pain, no gain approach. After all, in those days players were not allowed to take their helmets off during practice and not allowed to drink during practice. The whole goal was to make the players tough, so without pain there was no gain!

That should be changing today with the accumulation of knowledge and experience that we have. Let’s look at how and why it should change and what is changing. I do not know about you, but I want my players tough on game day.

That should be the goal of training. A thoroughly conditioned athlete who is supremely confident in his or her physical preparation will be mentally and physically tough. Physically and psychologically, an athlete can only go to the well so many times before they deplete its reserves.

There is no doubt in my mind that a good sport coach or a strength and conditioning coach can get athletes to train and perform beyond levels that the athletes ever thought possible. To achieve this does not mean you have to inflict pain. Pushing the envelope is uncomfortable. Athletes in training must get comfortable with a certain level of discomfort.

The obvious question then is: What is the line between working hard but not overdoing it during weightroom workouts? I tell my athletes that they are all fine-tuned Formula 1 race cars. To stay fine tuned they must work with high energy and push themselves, but just like the race car they can not be at red line all the time of there will be a blow-up.

It is important to remember that the weightroom is only one facet of the athlete’s total preparation; therefore it cannot be an end unto itself, but a means to end. So strength training must be kept in context of the total program. The test of work done in the weightroom is soreness.

There is good soreness and bad soreness. Good soreness is soreness in the muscles involved in a particular movement, i.e. the glutes in squatting. If the glutes are sore after a heavy squatting session, that is good. If the knees are sore, that is not good. Also soreness should dissipate after a good thorough warmup, if it does not then in all probability the workload was excessive. As coaches we are teachers. It is our job to teach the athletes we work with how to train. Training is more than feeling the burn. In fact when you do feel the burn, it is often a sign that the training is incorrect.

It does not take a genius to devise a workout that can bury someone–that is not training. Good lifts require effort, concentration and intensity. It is not body building.

I have found that this is the hardest lesson to get across to today’s athletes. I certainly do not want to discourage an athlete from working hard in the weight room, or anywhere for that matter, but I feel I must teach what training is.

Training is very cumulative, it is more than one heavy max session in the weightroom, and it is the cumulative effect of many sessions over a period of weeks and months. I always preach keeping the workouts in the weight room in context of the whole program. It is hard for a young athlete to think about or see the big picture, so we as coaches have paint a very clear picture so they can see where they are going and the steps they must take to get there.

Part of the problem with the no pain, no gain mentality is that it is ingrained in many sports. More is better and the more weight someone lifts the better it is, regardless of the technique or lack thereof.

I know some strength coaches have gotten away from this by not emphasizing one-rep maximums. They have gone to three rep maximums and then project a one rep max off of that. This can help.

Close supervision is the other solution. Group energy and encouragement is great as long as it is reasonable. I have seen too many athletes get caught up in the moment and try lifts they had no business attempting. Often when a large team is in the weightroom, supervision is difficult.

This is a real dilemma. Unfortunately it is a staffing issue, which further comes down to a budget issue. From an administrative viewpoint these are high risk environment that must be controlled to best extent possible.

What are the psychological factors that cause athletes to go over the line, and how do you be aware of them? Certainly the driven athlete will quickly subscribe to the no pain, no gain approach. This type of athlete needs constant feedback. The hurt that comes from training is a form of feedback. They are the type of athlete that always wants to do something extra. This is not an easy athlete to work with, because in their eyes you are taking away opportunities to get better.

This presents a real dilemma. This type of athlete must not be allowed any leeway in workouts.

What are the physical red flags that an athlete is overdoing it? Soreness that persists is a good sign. Soreness in the joints is a huge red flag. Also the inability to recover before the next workout often indicates that the athlete is redlining it all the time. An unexpected performance plateau is another sign that they are doing too much.

Testing can give the athlete and the coach feedback on the progress of training. Programming tests throughout training can focus the training away from no pain, no gain.

The tests should be carefully chosen to accurately reflect what is going on in training at the present time. Young developing athletes like and need to know where they are. Testing affords the opportunity to teach and reinforce the positive effects of proper training.

Training is not punishment–it is an opportunity to get better. If we can shift our thinking to this approach then the no gain, no gain school has a lot less credibility. The question I always ask coaches when I am teaching a clinic is: Are you making the athletes better or are you making them tired? If you are just making them tired, then I would suggest you look at the approach.

Part of the solution is providing reasonable strength and conditioning goals. This will provide direction and purpose to training. This avoids the trap of treating each workout like it was the last workout you would ever do and helps the athlete see the big picture that they are preparing for. If the goals are very individualized, that is even better.

A dilemma I face with today’s athlete are those who do not or will not push themselves. In essence, they go through the motions or they just do not understand all-out effort and intensity. If it is a lack of want to, then that it is an issue of desire. More often than not it is simply a case of a youngster not knowing how to push themselves. This demands patience and an educational approach to gradually set up sessions that progressively test their limits.

In our society today, this is one of the only environment where these youngsters have be a little uncomfortable. Choose the spots, do not turn them off. If will take some time, but once you get past this, they not a whole lot different that the young men and women of thirty years ago. A 15- to 18-year-old body will respond in a pretty predictable manner.

There is no substitute for purposeful directed work. More is certainly not better. It is important to recognize gains the high school athlete can make.

If you understand the growth and development process and follow good progressions it is possible push them to the edge, not over the edge. Perhaps the key to negating the no pain, no gain mentality is to understand progression.

Too much too soon without establishing a good base of general strength will negate the possibility of greater return later on. It is important to understand the various stimuli that cause an adaptive response to strength training and what the goals.

If the goal is to gain hypertrophy then volume is the stimulus, if the goal more neural then intensity is the primary stimulus. To make gains it is necessary to achieve certain stimulus threshold. This threshold is dependent on the individual and the objective of the training. Keep the big picture in mind–to achieve the training objective, it is more than one workout.

Remember willingness to work is a given prerequisite for success, but it must be purposeful, directed, and nurtured. There is gain without pain, but it demands patience and a well-executed plan.

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