‘No pain, no gain’ | Good or bad?

Pain! It can be felt in a variety of ways and evokes different sensations in the body. So how do we know if we are smashing our goals or smashing our bodies?

Have you been to that HIIT class or gym session when the trainer shouts ‘no pain, no gain!’ at you? Do you often feel the ‘burn’ that everyone seems to relish?

Lots of people can be motivated by these cues, which is great! The purpose of this blog is to try and clear up the confusion as to what this pain should – and importantly shouldn’t – feel like. When is tooooo much or tooooo little?

In this blog we break down:

  • Different types of pain you can experience whilst training.
  • Why we can experience pain and what it means for your body.
  • Which pains are perceived to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
  • Which types of pain can be managed and reduced with mobility training.


So, let’s get this pain party started. Below are some common types of pain we can experience whilst training. If any of these sensations particularly resonate with you, you can read more below for a deeper discussion:

  1. Sharp / spikey, like an electric shock.
  2. Dull ache, deeply penetrating the body.
  3. Crunchy, creaky or popping noises or sensations.
  4. A slow creeping heat or burn, that builds up over time.
  5. Heavy and sluggish muscles, that don’t respond to your desired movement.
  6. Muscle cramp, which stops you in your tracks and feels crippling.
  7. Light-headed, dizzy, stomach cramps, nausea, diarrhoea.
  8. DOMs, or ‘Delayed Onset Muscle’ soreness.

Before we dive into the break down of these types of pain, I wanted to say that this is general information, and everybody’s body is different depending on the conditions within your body. This should never replace the advice of a specialist, who can provide tailored guidance for you and I will always recommend seeking medical advice if you have worries and concerns over pain that you may experience in your movements.


Each type of pain comes from different processes or reactions in the body. This is by no means an extensive list, but many of the common sources and reasons why you could have a pain sensation.

The aim here is to help educate you what is happening in your body, so you can assess if each situation is helping (or not) to achieve your fitness and movement goals. Plus there are some helpful hints and tips based on my own experience!

So explore below by clicking the different types of pain, especially those which you experience in your own life!

This type of pain is commonly associated with nerves. I do not know any cases where we should strive for this pain. It is often crippling as a sensation and feels like something unpleasant is happening within the body, it just doesn’t feel right.

The body often uses these sensations to try and help you protect the body from danger such as tissue damage (e.g. bone or muscle).

This is commonly an acute pain brought on by specific movements, short lived and often once you limit or stop the motion, the sensation fades away. It is essentially your body’s protective mechanism to say ‘wooooooow hold up, don’t go on doing this please’. 

Unfortunately, true nerve pain can sometimes be chronic. This is longer lasting and usually down to a medical condition such as osteoarthritis which is often attributed to damaged / degenerated tissue and nerve damage.

One other source of a ‘sharp’ pain could also be tendon or ligament damage. A common example of this is tendonitis. And this pain often feels worse when the area is moving or stretched, with then some relief when it is rested.

Conclusion: Good or bad?

I do not know any reasonable situation where this feeling should be pushed through. If you feel sharp pains in your body, it is very unpleasant and is usually your body telling you to stop because you could cause some damage.

As a rule of thumb, if you experience this pain, I would stop the movement altogether or regress the movement heavily and consider getting it checked it out by a health professional.

This pain can be tricker to explain. It is discomfort that feels constant, uncomfortable and deep into the affected area not linked to exercise fatigue. It is a dull continuous ache which does not ease when the movement stops or when you are resting.

This sensation is often linked to impact injuries, bone trauma or more rarely other bone conditions.

Conclusion: Good or bad?

Like nerve pain, I don’t know any reasonable situation where we should be pushing through pain in our bones. Therefore, unless you have a medical condition where you have clearance from a health professional, I would stop the movement and get it checked out.

Pain in the bones can, for example, start as a stress fracture that could be repaired however if gone untreated, could lead to a full break. Let’s not do that…

Without pain or swelling

Sometimes these noises can be unnerving. I hear quite a bit of noise when I do neck CARs, as this is where I hold a lot of tension and it all feels and sounds a bit ‘clunky’. However, if we don’t have any pain or swelling during or after the movement, it is generally just your body being a bit sticky and stiff.

As people get older they will notice this more and it is pretty common, due to general wear and tear on our body (joints in particular). As a result, we aren’t just as smooth in these areas and it can create more noise. Think of a bicycle chain. If you don’t oil the chain, it can be pretty noisy. Once you oil the chain, often the pedal stroke is smoother and everything is much quieter. Think of general warm-ups or softer movement as the ‘oil’ for your joints. I have heard the saying ‘motion is lotion’ for your joints and I think it is great advice. Not just for your exercise routine, but life in general. Try to do some movement throughout the day to keep the lotion around the body! Mobility training is a great remedy 😉

In terms of the sounds itself, here is a little education on what it could physically be:

  • Clicking or snapping noises around the joint can suggest tight muscles in a specific area. This could be some friction of the tendon or ligament over the bone having the sensation that it is essentially ‘catching’ (e.g. elbow when doing press-ups, or in the knee when lunging). Stretching or releasing the surrounding muscles often helps and although usually nothing to be too concerned about, it is a good signal that your body could benefit from some mobility training and a good foam rolling session.
  • The cracking of joints (we all know that person who cracks their knuckles) is often associated with the release of gas around a joint as the joint starts to be manipulated into a new position. This is generally a natural occurrence and does not require specific attention

With pain or swelling

If these noises come with sharp pain and/or swelling during or after training, this is a sign that something isn’t quite right. For example, it could indicate cartilage or tendon/ligament trauma or damage. If in doubt, keep an eye on the area after the workout and see how the body responds in terms of pain and fluid retention.

Conclusion: Good or bad?

If there is no pain or swelling, generally this should not cause too much concern. However, if you feel something is catching in your joints, then getting a massage, stretching and mobility training will be good in the long run as your body is giving you a little sign. Prevention is easier than cure, so use these little signs as an opportunity to prevent a potential injury down the line. And checking it out with a health professional will also give you peace of mind. Always remember, we only have one body! If in doubt, check it out!

If pain and swelling is experienced, I would suggest stop the movement and get it checked out. This is not a pain that needs to be pushed through as it isn’t going to give you any gains but eventually cause an injury.

This sensation is probably best described as a slow burn. You feel heat into the muscles and body from a sustained hard effort.

As the body creates energy to help you move, we do not always use our everyday glucose stores for energy as it is too little and too slow to access. Instead, the body goes inwards to release energy much quicker through the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate). The by-product of this process is called lactate or lactic acid and is commonly generated during high-intensity anaerobic training.

Now here comes the kicker: when we tap into the ATP process, we start to feel a burn and heaviness in the working limbs as time goes on. This is due to the lactate. The amazing part then happens with our ‘powerhouse’ cells called mitochondria (maybe this rings a bell from your school biology lesson?) But essentially the mitochondria, with training, can become great transporters which not only take away the by-product but also find magical ways to reuse it in the body for more energy.

But essentially, the heavy burning sensations into the working limbs is your energy systems changing to anaerobic focused training and lactate building up!

Conclusion: Good or bad?

This is the most common time that you hear somebody shout ‘no pain, no gain!’ at you. And this is probably what they are referring to when they talk about ‘pain’.

Generally, as long as you can maintain correct alignment and form, this is the sort of progressive overloading of the body that will create adaption and therefore result in a stronger and fitter you. This is the grittier side of training when you can enter the ‘pain cave’.

What I see, however, is that in the ruthless pursuit of fitness, fatigued but driven people can push through the movements with disastrous form resulting in an often unhappy and injured body. So always do form first, intensity second. If you are too exhausted to do a high impact burpee anymore without a floppy upper body in the squat and dumping into a plank, do a modified burpee. You have already worked to exhaustion, you will work the muscular systems better with control and reduce the chance of injury. Although it’s easier said than done, try not to get sucked into what everyone else is doing.

So this is less of a pain, but more of a pain in the arse for you and your movement!

Your heart and head can be in the zone but your body is just not turning up. No matter what movements you try, the music you put on, it just isn’t happening. The body just refuses to give you the power or speed that you want, even if you think that you have been doing everything text book perfect.

There can be heaps of reasons for this, and often people will go for the most dramatic reason, however more often than not it is due to lifestyle factors that you probably just aren’t even aware of:

  • Progressive fatigue from previous training or overtraining: This is something I see a lot. People refuse to give themselves and their body a rest day and just keep plugging on regardless of the signs from the body. This is pretty common with someone who has a strict training program that they want to follow, part of a club and have a bad case of FOMO if they don’t attend or have exercise dependency.
  • Lifestyle factors: Stress with work or family sets into the body more than we appreciate. A bad sleep, changing or poor nutrition, alcohol consumption, changes in medications all have big impacts on the body.
  • Hormonal factors: Females in particular, this one is for you. Where you are in your menstrual cycle REALLY effects your performance. I aim to write up a blog on this in the future 😊.
  • Recovering from a minor illness (such as a cold): If you are a movement keen bean, chances are the moment you start to feel better from a cold, you are right back on it. But often the body needs a little longer than you think! So although you are super keen to jump back in, the body might appreciate a gentler re-introduction to movement.
  • Medical conditions: There are also numerous medical conditions which makes us feel sluggish. More than I could list. However, rather than thinking of the most dramatic medical condition google can ping at you, maybe critically consider the factors above first. And if it persists after this, consider a trip to the docs. 

Conclusion: Good or bad?

So generally, if you can still do the movements with good form and alignment, you are good. However, your body is talking to you. And maybe you shouldn’t ignore it or at least adapt the workout to something different. Change that HIIT class to mobility or conditioning. Still super benefits for the body whilst not pushing it even deeper into the fatigue rabbit hole.

To be honest, often our body is smarter than us as we are driven by egos and extrinsic factors. I personally think that we should listen to it much more.

A cramp is all about the muscle. The muscle basically makes a strong involuntary contraction which can be rather painful! Although often short lived, it basically stops you from using the muscle for the length of time that the muscle is stuck in contraction.

Usually cramps are related to three factors:

  • Inadequate blood supply: Which is probably what we will experience whilst exercising. These types of cramps usually ease the moment that you stop exercising.
  • Nerve compression: Compression of nerves in your spine can sometimes produce cramp-like pain in your legs and usually worsens the longer you walk.
  • Mineral depletion: Not enough potassium, calcium or magnesium in your diet can contribute to leg cramps. For example, it could be the reason for that random painful calf cramp which wakes you up from a sleep.

The risk of cramps can be increased depending on some conditions:

  • Often people who are older in age will experience more cramps as the muscles get overstressed more easily.
  • In warm weather, cramps can increase as we sweat more and dehydrate, hence the minerals become imbalanced as well as the muscles being overstressed. This is a reason why electrolytes can be handy in hot weather, especially for endurance events.
  • Cramps are more common during pregnancy as the growing baby can enhance both of the factors mentioned above.
  • Some medical conditions can increase the risk of muscle cramps, such as diabetes.

Conclusion: Good or bad?

If you get a cramp, unless you are literally trapped in your current position (an example might be horse riding), just stop and chill out. Maybe it is a gentle sloooooow walk, or just have a little lie down and let it ride out. There are lots of conflicted studies as to whether to stretch or not, but none say to just push through at the same intensity. You can do damage to the stressed area if you just push through, so just let your body have a little moment. If you get a cramp mid-workout, maybe try switching your training focus to a different part of the body for that day.

When we exercise very heavily with a big effort, sometimes the muscles aren’t the only thing that struggle!

I’ve pretty much experienced all of these sensations during exercise. Maybe you’ve had those training sessions where you feel lightheaded and maybe even been sick. If you are a runner, you may have heard of the ‘runners poo’. Yeah, it’s a thing. And suddenly all you want in the world is a public toilet. Again, I’ve been there. Eeeeep.

But why do these things happen?

Stomach upset

Stomach cramps, nausea and diarrhoea can all occur when we are either pushing a big explosive effort or also a long continuous effort. Basically, a situation where the body is under stress. Essentially the body is being clever in making sure that we do not waste energy by pumping blood and oxygen to the digestive system but takes it to the muscular system. This makes us better at the movement we want to do. However, as a consequence this can sometimes cause stomach and digestive issues during or after exercising, especially if there is a jumping movement where lots of ‘stuff’ is bopping around.

Your food can also be a big factor in this. If you each too soon to the workout, you might feel it! Or if you eat too far away or not at all, you might feel empty of energy or light-headed. There is a fine balance different methods work for different people!

Light-headed/dizzy/speckled vision

There are a few reasons why this could happen:

  • Breath: We need a lot of oxygen when we move a lot, and hence if you can’t get enough air into the lunges to feed the blood and get to the brain, you can feel light-headed. This is common for people who maybe go too hard too quick in their fitness journey. Sometimes people can simply forget to breathe! Like in core exercises such as the plank.
  • Over-exertion: This is also linked to not getting enough oxygen to the brain BUT it can also result in your blood pressure suddenly dropping and/or your body to dehydrate. So again, build your fitness up slowly and continuously.
  • Dehydration: If you exercise in hot conditions or do training where you cannot access water as much as you want, then more water could be coming out of your body than going in. Light-headedness and fatigue could then set in. My best advice is constant little sips throughout exercise as gulping down heaps of water in one sitting can also cause stomach upset. Try and plan outdoor activities around having some back up ‘fuel stations’, such as maybe a little shop or a water fountain.
  • Low blood sugar level: Our brain needs glucose to function normally. When we deplete our reserves whilst exercising, dizziness can set in. Taking on electrolytes during endurance events, eating slow-release glucose foods prior to training and having a little emergency stash in your bag can help too, if you feel this is a common issue for you.
  • Low blood pressure: Some people can experience a rapid drop in blood pressure which can occur with really any movement! When exercising, your heart and muscles are working hard to keep you moving and grooving! When you stop abruptly, your heart and muscles quickly try to regulate to normal but it can take a little longer for your blood vessels to catch up. This means that oxygenated blood takes a little longer to get to your brain which makes you feel light-headed.

Conclusion: Good or bad?

Being light-headed or dizzy shouldn’t be ignored or pushed through, take the intensity down, make the situation safe (e.g. don’t press your weights overhead, avoid jumping, slowly turn off then step off the treadmill) and have a little sip of water. Sometimes sitting down helps, especially if you feel faint. If you are with a friend, let them know so they can keep an eye on you and make you comfortable.

I would suggest dialling back the intensity, potentially take on a little bit of nutrition and let yourself come back.

Digestive issues can only really be addressed by making yourself as comfortable as possible. Sometimes a trip to the toilet is all you need and daaaamn you are back. Sometimes it just persists and it’s flipping annoying. Again, often easing back the intensity also eases the pain (e.g. walk don’t run) and means that you can still do some movement. You could also try investigating your nutritional habits, with a bit of trial and error with what and when you are eating. For example fruit (in particular Bananas) don’t agree with me when exercising, nor do the energy gels that you often see at endurance events. However, they do work wonders for others! 

One major top tip I would say to anyone who does sporting events, competitions or races is to train at the same time that you would be doing these activities. This means you can figure out how your body responds to the fuel that you can have at that time and the digestive processes that are happening.

DOMs usually occur 12-24 hours after a workout and tend to last for 1-3 days depending on the intensity of the DOMs. After this it should ease off. The feeling can be explained as tender muscles, sometimes tender to touch and a reduced range of movement and strength around the area. Additionally, you have heavy fatigue in the area and even sometimes swelling in the muscles.

So what is it and why do we get it?

In a nutshell, we have made tiny little tears in your muscle fibres. The body then gets to work by repairing it and the increasing of inflammation is what causes the DOMs. Basically, anyone can experience it when we dial up the intensity of our movement or try something that our body isn’t used to.

For example, I live in the Netherlands – the flattest country in the world – but also love the mountains. The first few days of hiking and running in the hills on holiday always results in DOMs as the body isn’t used to the increased intensity caused by the inclines/declines and the sensation has shocked the muscles.

Conclusion: Good or bad?

If you have DOMs, chances are that you have already had a hard workout. And what is even more important than working hard, is also recovering well. Probably the most underrepresented part of the fitness industry. Without recovery, you risk wasting all that hard effort. The body needs time to recover and replenish. You shouldn’t be striving for a super high intensity workout every day of the week. Variety is the spice of life so let your body recover and do something different in your movements!

In terms of rest days, there is a lot of mixed advice out there and some people even say that certain people never need a rest day. To some extent this can be true, but I do believe that everyone should have regular rest days. I also think most people who do not believe in rest days are the exercise addicts or else someone who will financially benefit the more times you use their exercise services.

I like to use the example of your working life: If you worked every day and never had a weekend or day off, I expect you would become mentally fatigued and your wellbeing could really suffer. So why do the same to your body?

I am always happy to be critiqued in my thoughts, but I was an over-exerciser in the past and I am much stronger now from doing less, listening to the body more and training much smarter. Try not to feel guilty about taking a rest. If you do feel this guilt, maybe your psychology towards exercise and training might need to shift a bit.

Remember that a rest day doesn’t just mean you sit and watch Netflix all day (although you totally can if you want!). You can still move! Like doing some gentle mobility training, yoga, having a nice walk with your family, spring cleaning, playing with your kids and pets, light gardening and so on. But I personally would never recommend working out intensely the same area as it is already trying to recover. It is like picking the scab off a wound over and over again, it will take longer to heal and could leave a permanent scar.


The best piece of advice is to listen to your body. Often we ignore its signals because of external factors and many of us could do better at listening from within.

It can’t be denied that we need to experience some level of pain to achieve gains and reach our fitness goals. The ‘burn’ mentioned at the beginning is probably a good sign, as is the fatigue after a strenuous workout where we have pushed the limits whilst maintaining good form. However, we should avoid overtraining until we reach chronic fatigue and poor recovery between training will lead to a limited return on your fitness investment and lead to other health implications.

On the other hand, other types of pain should not be ignored, such as sharp and spiky nerve pain, bone pain and joint swelling. If in doubt, check it out with a health professional! We only have one body, so let’s try to look after it.

This is not an extensive list of reasons as to why your pain occurs, but an overview. It shouldn’t replace specific tailored assessment from a health professional but should act as a supporting educational document as to how and why we sometimes have these sensations.

Mobility training is a highly effective way to help us recover quicker from big workouts and keep or improve our range of motion to mitigate pain, enabling you to reach new performance goals.

That’s one of the reasons Move Better Mobility is here for you – whether as part of a recovery day, cool down routine or simply to bring some mindful movement into your day, our mobility training will help you prevent unwanted pain, recover faster and bulletproof your body for future exploits!

With this new knowledge, go out there and Move Better!

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