Pain Vs Strain

With my past, injuries, training for meets and competitions, dealing with clients in training and nutrition and just daily life in general. Pain is always something that’s comes up at some point in a day, inevitably strain as well if one is going to extremes, training hard, getting mentally or physically taxed.

There is a fine line between the two that one must walk to make above average progress. One being good, Strain, and one being bad, Pain. It’s figuring out that cloudy gray area that can take effort, more so for the beginner, and the elite. Both of these groups tend to be on the opposite side of the spectrum, and have to take the most care when dealing with these if they are to continue to make great progress.

Let's start with a simple definition of each.

(omitting some of the ones that are not relevant like removing liquid from a can of beans in a strainer etc.)


1: punishment

2 a: usu. localized physical suffering associated with bodily disorder (as a disease or an injury) ; also : a basic bodily sensation induced by a noxious stimulus, received by naked nerve endings, characterized by physical discomfort (as pricking, throbbing, or aching), and typically leading to evasive action b: acute mental or emotional distress or suffering : grief

4plural : trouble, care, or effort taken to accomplish something


2 a: to exert (as oneself) to the utmost b: to injure by overuse, misuse, or excessive pressure c: to cause a change of form or size in (a body) by application of external force

3: to squeeze or clasp tightly: as a: hug b: to compress painfully : constrict

5: to stretch beyond a proper limit

6obsolete : to squeeze out : extort

intransitive verb

1 a: to make violent efforts : strive b: to pull against resistance c: to contract the muscles forcefully in attempting to defecate —often used in the phrase strain at stool

3: to make great difficulty or resistance : balk — strain a point : to go beyond a usual, accepted, or proper limit or rule

As you can clearly see both of these have many things in common by definition, excess, injury, overuse, going beyond the physical limits. Both require healing and adaptation. The difference, and problem being, one we should seek and will cause us to progress, straining, without which we will stagnate. and one The other we should aim to avoid, and can be a major set back, Pain. Yet they are so closely related we have to take great care in IDing each, and inevitably if one does Strain enough, they will at some point have some, and even great amounts of Pain, and/or injury they have to come back from.

It’s limiting the Pain and maximizing the strain that we want to accomplish. Finding our limits, our breaking points, that takes time.

Like I alluded to at opposite ends off the spectrum here, and who really need to take the most care in deciphering the difference between these two, are beginners and the elite. Let’s take a look at both, and a few reasons why I make this claim.

The Beginner...

The problem, and the blessing. Every stimulus is new. Everything registers as pain in their minds, even strain. Even strain in minute amount will cause pain for them. (DOMS) I have also seen this as problematic in many new trainees trying to explain the difference between pain and strain. They don’t know what strain is.

They are not mentally equipped or have the vocabulary to differentiate between straining, push hard, and pain. Strain to them at this point is Pain. The simple act of lifting an object heavy enough to cause an adaptation, cause them to strain. Strain in their heads does not register as a great but achievable effort, but as something that is painful. They literally feel STRAIN, due to it being foreign to them, As Pain.

This is where the beginner, and we as coaches have to take great effort and care. We have to somehow start things slow and make small easy progress. As everything this population does is enough to cause adaptation and strain, but we also have to get across the picture to them that in order for them to keep progress coming after the initial break in period, they are going to have to learn to work DAMN hard, to strain at completing a task. Begin to build a vocabulary differentiating between STRAIN, and actual PAIN.

Teach them that really their mind is their biggest limiter, as they are physically capable of much more than their mind will allow their body to do without thinking a straining stimulus is painful. It is with this in mind we have to pick our battles and really push the limits at times, get it across that they are going to have to work hard. Great progress is achieved with great effort, but to SHUT it down when it is painful, if form starts to wane, etc. That when an activity is a straining, it is OK, but when form goes to shit, and prior to or the feeling of any real PAIN, shut them down.

I would argue in many, many, cases those who never progress from a young training age to a more advanced training age are those who never really learn this. Never really learn that strain is warranted, needed, and should be desired to make progress above and beyond that of average, or a small bit above average. You have to gain that vocabulary and ability to STRAIN hard vs an external load, in a fashion that causes no PAIN.

The Elite.

Then in the very advanced, and elite, we have the polar opposite. This is the population that long ago learned what strain is, to seek it, gained the ability to block out great amounts of strain that many would register falsely as pain. The problem in this group arises in several areas.

They have gotten so efficient at blocking out even Very High levels of strain they are constantly and consistently on the verge or actually stepping into the pain side of things, when they are aiming to strain. They have achieved a level of ability to create an amount of effort needed to adapt that it could, in many cases, be classified as pain.

In reality EVERY athlete who is near the pinnacle, and pushing the bounds is daily dealing with some type of real pain and injury. It is simply part of the game, and it is a fallacy that many perceive this population at the pinnacle of health. They see the actions and feats these people perform in an almost effortless fashion and believe that they are in great physical health 99% of the time, when that is anything but the truth. Most high level athletes are dealing with pain on a daily basis. They have also become so efficient at what they do that even in great form they can generate enough force to cause PAIN / Injury

The reasons why the actions they do look effortless, easy, pain free, and awe-inspiring is due to the amount of strain they forced on their bodies for Years. To the point of putting up with, and accepting a great deal of pain and not letting it register. They have created margins of ability so large that even the greatest feats can be done in a fashion that seems elementary to them.

Secondly these individuals have become so mentally strong, that even large amounts of pain can be blocked and accepted much like strain HAS to be ignored to get the job done. They are NOT pain free, they are simply conditioned, physically and mentally strong enough to overcome pain, and still perform at great levels.

So the problem the elite and very advanced athletes face is much the same as the beginner, it is themselves. The opposite of the beginner the elite cant recognize pain. They have such high levels of tolerance for pain/strain, and an over recognition that strain leads to progress they often over step those bounds.

Unlike the beginner many elite need to not strain further, but be throttled back. We have to coach them very carefully. Pick the correct times are to strain to great levels, and those times to simply put forth a solid effort but not a great deal (for them) of strain.  Even an above average effort for the very advanced athlete is a great bit of stimulus, and strain on the human body.


The elite are so conditioned, so efficient in moving, so well at blocking pain, and have the ability to make a very hard task look easy. Many times the best thing we can do is hold them back. Kill numbers. Crush loads that aren’t that straining. Slowly add on volume and intensity.


While not 100% clear or defining, I am not sure it can be. I hope this gave you some things to ponder in your selves, and those you work with. That you can use these thoughts to better ID what you, and they need to continue progress.