No Pain, No Gain

What is the role of pain in martial arts training? Does the popular expression “no pain, no gain" apply to what we do? Is pain good in some scenarios and bad in others? Here's what I have found out over the years.


First of all, pain signals your brain that something is wrong. You should not overlook that signal because it's like an internal siren going off. Furthermore, the person who said “no pain, no gain" is no longer living. That should give you some indication of the validity of his well-known but erroneous statement.

Pain is necessary to tell you that something is wrong with your body. When you feel a lot of pain, you should go to a doctor because it's his job to make you feel better. Pain should signal you to seek treatment before the problem gets worse.

If you experience a minor pain and for some reason are unable to get checked by a doctor, don't worry too much: The human body has a tremendous capacity to heal itself. It will often fix what's wrong if you give it sufficient time.

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Some martial artists believe that pain is the best teacher. That is 100-percent incorrect. The problem is that when you feel pain, you start cheating on the technique or exercise you're doing. To limit the pain, you perform the technique improperly.

For example, if I have to do a split and I know it will hurt, I'll change my body position or pivot a little bit differently. It still looks like I'm doing a split, but I'm not actually doing it. That does not do me or my muscles any good.

It's important to realize that there are two kinds of pain: muscle pain and joint pain. Muscle pain can be worked through with fewer risks than can joint pain. You can avoid most muscle pain by keeping your limbs relaxed and engaging in a regular stretching routine.

Joint pain is much more serious because it often indicates a serious ligament or cartilage problem. If you keep working out while you experience joint pain, you're risking further damage to those vulnerable parts of your body.

During my competition days in the early 1970s, martial artists' attitudes toward pain were quite different. Back then — during the blood-and-guts era — the last thing we ever wanted to do was give in to our pain.

We sparred, and if our opponent bashed our lip, we just sucked the blood into our mouth and said, “Good shot." Nowadays, people are much less likely to put up with such severity.

With all that in mind, it's important to know that in martial arts training, the total elimination of pain is an impossible dream. For example, there's no way to totally avoid getting hit or bruised during sparring.

Sometimes it's important to work through those bruises. If you cannot, the best thing to do is sit down and rest. If the injury doesn't improve, consider seeing a doctor.

Martial artists must tread a fine line between training hard and training to the point where they overload their muscles and injure themselves. Listen to what your body tells you.

About the author: Bill Wallace is a former kickboxing champion who now teaches seminars around the world.

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