No Pain No Gain? One Personal Trainer’s Perspective.

Written by Philippe Orlando, Personal Trainer

We’ve all heard the old expression – “no pain, no gain.” Some in my industry believe it is taboo. We should never say that because it’s too intimidating and clients won’t want to train with us; or it’s too risky – you might get sued if your client gets an injury and you had conveyed a message that contributed to him overdoing it. Some people call me a bit of a hard-ass, which is not my intention; but I do want to be a realist. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the drill sergeant personal trainer who yells “no pain, no gain” in his client’s faces. But there is no question that intense exercise (for those who can do it safely) is far more effective than easy exercise, and yes – intense exercise can cause some temporary discomfort or “pain.”

I try to recognize, at all times, the fleeting, unstable and temporal nature of everything I do and feel. What I have today might be gone tomorrow. This is true for my job, objects I value, and certainly for my body and what it can do at a particular time, including pain or discomfort from exercise. I transform the discomfort I feel into another experience – me functioning at a higher level.

While it is in our nature to feel a sense of permanence in almost every area of our life, including our bodily experiences, this is an illusion. We are all being fooled by the relatively long span of human life and our seeming ability to repeat any kind of experience forever. We really don’t have this ability. We are fooled by our ability to function for a long time in a very comfortable state. But if we never push beyond our comfort zone, we are actually just avoiding landmarks needed to realize that we are indeed declining – wasting away, slowly, unnoticeably, but surely nonetheless. If all you do is sit at a desk all day, you will never feel that the ability to sit at a desk is slipping away. You will always be able to sit at a desk. It’s only at a more extreme degree of function that you can become aware of your fleeting abilities. Talk to a 60 year old who has enjoyed running his entire life. He knows that at 18 he was able to run a four minute mile. He is certainly more aware of the temporal and fleeting nature of the human physical experience than someone who never ran at 18 and does not run today. If you have no landmark, you won’t see where you are, where you were, and where you are going. Exercise is an awareness and an assessment tool; a check of “where am I today?”

Every time you do something, consider that it could be the last time you do it. So the next time you exercise and you reach some uncomfortable limits, try to actually view this as another way of being in the present moment in a way that is specific to today and might not happen again…ever. When you push yourself, and start to feel the discomfort from your hard working muscles or lungs, try to cherish it! Embrace this discomfort as a form of active meditation. Unlike the more common passive meditation – comfortably resting and focusing on calm breathing; with this active meditation focus on what your body is feeling while you are pushing it beyond comfortable limits. Learn how to look inward at your biological machine in action. This is another form of awareness. This is mindfulness while functioning while under controlled stress. Be amazed! “Wow, I can do that! Yes, I feel the burn in my muscles, yes it’s hard to breath; this is very tough, but it’s me.” The more you observe the discomfort of intense exercise, the more you turn inward and try to appropriate the feeling, the more you’ll have control over it.

Life, too often, happens at one range of our natural spectrum – the pleasant one. We seek pleasure all the time and we think we deserve it. But discomfort is a part of the human experience and is what at the end of the day can make us better if we learn how to subject ourselves to it without apprehension, but rather with control and as something part of us. Discomfort is just our body telling us we are entering a zone we are not used to. Exercise physiologists will say that homeostasis is being disturbed and your body perceives this as a threat. Your mind must take over.

Pain is relative. A shift in mindset can help us put the discomfort of exercise into a new perspective; can make us more in tune with our bodies; can enable us to embrace what we feel; and ultimately can help us better experience, enhance and prolong our life.

Goals, Life Circumstances and Priorities… Deterioration, Maintenance or Progress?

1 TO 1 has been in the personal training business for 30 years. We have worked with thousands of clients with a multitude of different training goals, many who have experienced transformational changes to their health, fitness, performance and lives. We have clients who have lost 50 pounds or more and who have maintained their new weight for well over a decade. We have had youth athletes who struggled to make a junior travel team go on to play a college sport. We have had young professional athletes train to get better and we have had older professional athletes train to come back from an injury or extend their careers for just a few more seasons. We have clients who have suffered debilitating injuries or illnesses ultimately achieve a higher level of health and fitness than they ever had before. But we also train hundreds of clients who are not competitive athletes and who have not suffered debilitating illnesses or injuries; who are “regular people” living “regular lives,” managing careers, raising children, caring for elderly relatives, volunteering for their churches, synagogues, or mosques, handling job stresses, and experiencing the time constraints, challenges and joys of day to day life.

Almost everything we do in life we do for a reason and everyone who exercises does so with an objective, desire or goal. But our exercise goals may not always be able to be lofty. There is no question that aggressive but attainable goals have motivated many people to work hard, stick to a training regimen, and achieve fantastic accomplishments such as a first 10K or Marathon, or losing 20 pounds to fit into a wedding dress. But in some ways, having an acute short term goal can make it easier for someone to stick to a program for a finite time period. Most of us do not have an upcoming wedding and are not interested in doing a marathon. Most of us simply want to improve our general health; we want to be a bit more fit so that we can play with our children or grandchildren, or participate in the company softball game without tearing a muscle or twisting an ankle, or maybe enjoy some casual weekend tennis without having a heart attack. Some of us may simply want to maintain our current health, fitness and body composition, which is also a worthy goal given the fact that the average adult gains two pounds of fat and loses one pound of muscle each year after the age of 35. Regular exercise and healthy eating, year in and year out, enable millions of people to beat this trend, to remain healthy and capable as they age with grace, dignity and a greater ability to enjoy their lives and support their families.

Everyone loves super-success stories. At 1 TO 1 we have certainly been inspired by our clients who have risen to the top of their sports, who have persevered through illness to renewed health, and who make great “before and after” models; but we are also inspired by the majority of our clients who, with little noticed dedication and discipline, are able to stick with their training year in and year out and maintain their health and fitness when it would be much easier to skip the gym and hit the couch with chips, cookies or ice cream like at least 70% of the US population does.

Effective goals should be challenging, but attainable. The reality is that some people truly do not have time to train as frequently as would be necessary to achieve transformational changes to their health, fitness, performance, body composition and lives. This could be the young associate who needs to work 80 hours per week to make partner within the next five years, or the mother of three small children managing child care and her career, or the multitude of other life circumstances that may make it close to impossible for “regular people” to achieve transformational health, fitness, performance or body composition changes. However, for most people in our society, overly busy or stressful life periods should not be reason to completely disregard their health and fitness, and should not be used as an overriding excuse to completely give up on exercise and healthy eating.

Goals can change as our life circumstances and our personal priorities change. If we are in a period in our lives when it is honestly, truly, close to impossible to devote the time and effort that it would take to accomplish super-ambitious goals, we should at least carve out a few hours each week to exercise simply to try to maintain our health and fitness. Hopefully we can get through these difficult times without deterioration to our health and fitness, and when our life circumstances allow us to place a higher priority on health and fitness we can devote more time to our training.

The same is true with healthy eating. Many people eat unhealthy foods as short term comfort from stress, and during extremely busy times filled with long work hours and lots of work travel it is difficult to maintain ideal eating practices. However, even if we are not in the mindset or circumstances to maintain ideal nutrition habits, we do not need to let our nutrition habits go completely to pot.

Personal trainers need to know what their client’s goals and priorities are, and what their life circumstances are. They then need to educate their clients about what it will take to achieve their goals (exercise frequency, nutrition behaviors, etc.). If a client does not believe that he is in a position to do what is necessary to achieve his goals, one of two things should happen. Either the client can re-establish his priorities so that he is in a position to do what it takes to achieve his goals, or he should adjust his goals so they are realistic given his life circumstances. At an absolute minimum, as trainers, we should get all of our clients to train frequently enough and eat productively enough so that they can maintain their health and fitness instead of allowing it to deteriorate. Sometimes just this successful change will not only help a client immediately, but be a first of more positive and ambitious steps to come. Most clients, however, will be in a position to commit to and make even more changes, and they can do more than just maintain, they can improve their health, fitness, performance and body composition. And for some clients, highly ambitious goals will be realistic and their priorities and life circumstances will put them in a position to train frequently enough and eat healthy enough so that they can achieve life transforming changes. For our clients who are not there yet, we will constantly be looking for when the timing is right.