Are You In Good Shape or Do You Just Have a High Pain Tolerance?

March 18, 2010

I was thinking about something the other day when killing myself on the stepmill machine doing intervals at the highest setting. Am I able to push hard at the highest setting because I am in decent shape, or is it just because I am a sicko who can push through pain? Part of me thinks that I am just good at pushing hard even when my body tells me to back off. In the spring and summer I play tennis for hours with a good friend of mine who is the same age and works out year round as well. We are both winded and drenched with sweat within 30 minutes of playing, but push on. Again I ask myself, am I in good shape or do I simply have a high pain tolerance. Let’s discuss this topic in more detail. I don’t have a concrete answer, but would love to explore this idea with you guys and get your feedback as well.


[Just another cool photo that has nothing to do with the article. I didn’t want to show people in pain, plus this photo blends in well with the colors and shades of my site.]

Let’s Talk About “Linda” and Her Struggles With Weight Loss

I used to manage a woman named Linda. Linda was 52 years old and had been overweight her entire life. She did everything wrong as far as keeping her weight under control. Linda was a big-time compulsive eater and ate every 2 hours the entire day, to “keep her metabolism from slowing down”. She even lectured me about this on a regular basis, saying that my metabolism would slow down if I continued to eat just a few times per day. She gave everyone diet tips and the two years she worked for me she stayed 100+ pounds overweight the entire time. Linda said she couldn’t exercise due to fibromyalgia.

“When I Try to Exercise, It Hurts Boss!”

Linda’s excuse for not exercising was her “fibromyalgia”. Fibromyalgia is a legitimate condition where people feel fatigued and have body-wide pain, but there are many people who do as Linda did and claim they have this condition as an excuse to be lazy. Linda was not diagnosed by a doctor, she said that it was obvious because when she exercised it “hurt.” When I asked her what her symptoms were she said that her legs would get a burning sensation when she rode an exercise bike and she would breath “really hard” even just walking on a treadmill. “Boss…when I walk at the same speed as other people I breath a lot harder and it hurts….I tried to lift weights once and it hurt for 4 days. I hate having fibromyalgia!”

Do Fit People Simply Have a Higher Pain Tolerance?

The thing about pain is that you can’t tell how much pain someone else is feeling. When I am doing an intense interval session it hurts “quite a bit”, during the sprinting part. I don’t feel like anything is being damaged, but it takes mental discipline to keep pushing. Pain tolerance is a weird thing as well. Two people can feel the same amount of pain and mentally cope with it in different ways. I am positive that my interval hurts me much more than Linda’s walking speed hurts Linda. The difference is that I know that the reward will be worth it and part of me likes to see how far I can push myself. Linda simply has a personality where she searches for the path of least resistance. Unfortunately that is the path of least reward as well.

The Skill of Pushing Through Pain, Creates Elite Athletes

I believe that pushing through pain (not injury) is what allows your body to reach the next level of conditioning. I am convinced that some of the fittest athletes in the world simply operate longer and more often on the edge of pain – adapt – and then push to the next level. Once they reach the next higher level of conditioning they push to the edge of pain again and they continue to progress.

Here is An Entertaining Fact About Pain Tolerance…

Swearing can actually increase pain tolerance. Here is an excerpt from the article I’m linking to, which describes a recent study examining pain tolerance.

They recruited 67 undergraduates, and asked to make two short lists of words – one containing five words they might use after hitting themselves on the thumb with a hammer, the other containing five words they might use to describe a table. The participants submerged one of their hands into room temperature water for three minutes, to provide a standardized starting point, then transferred it to a container of cold water and instructed to keep it submerged for as long as they could. In one condition, they were told to repeat the first swear word they had included in their list; in another, they repeated one of the words describing a table.

Contrary to their hypothesis, they found that swearing actually reduced the amount of pain felt. The participants kept their hands submerged in the cold water longer, and also reported experiencing less pain, when they repeated a swear word than when they repeated a word describing a table. Swearing was also associated with increased heart rate.

Swearing therefore enabled the participants to tolerate to the cold temperature for longer, and also caused a reduction in their perception of the pain felt. A difference between males and females was observed. Swearing led to a greater reduction in pain perception and a bigger increase in heart rate in females

“Damn this F@#&%N Interval Workout!”

I would probably attempt to swear during intervals, but I am typically out of breath…plus I’d get booted out of the gym. Swearing has come in handy a few times when I’ve stubbed my toe or hit my head. I actually believe jumping around helps ease pain tolerance as well. If I hit my head, knee, or “funny bone”…I can’t stand still. A few F-bombs and circling around or jumping around when I jam my toe works wonders. Who made up the name funny bone anyway? It is anything but funny when you hit that part of your arm!

What’s Your Opinion on Being Fit Vs Tolerating Pain?

I would love to hear your opinions on this subject matter. I think there are some people who so probably feel more pain, but my guess in that a large portion of the population simply lives a life of seeking the path of least resistance. There is always some type of discomfort to be expected or price to be paid for anything worthwhile…right?

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

cinderkeys April 5, 2010 at 1:27 pm

You’re awfully quick to decide that Linda doesn’t actually have fibromyalgia. If she hasn’t been to a doctor who knows something about this disease, she should. Because if she has it, putting her on the same exercise regimen as everyone else is dangerous. “Pushing through” is a very bad idea. And if she doesn’t have it, then she can exercise without fear of those consequences.

Eat Steak Lose Weight April 5, 2010 at 10:17 pm

The F%#^$*#%#^$#%^!!!! Great, now I’m ready to go out and run through a concrete wall.

Seriously, I think this whole subject requires a sense of proportion. For the elite athlete the line between the outer edges of human performance and crippling injuries is a knife edge they walk because competitive performance at a sport is a life purpose. You don’t get the gold medals by not being willing to go farther than the other guy.

Of course this has a dark side, from Andre Agassi’s debilitating back to a Chinese Olympic system that physically wrecks its stars by their mid-twenties.

For most of us reading this, I doubt that competitive sports are an occupation. It’s fun to identify with the athletic stars. As children, I’m sure we all idolized someone (George Brett in my case).

But, I think the first step before setting out on any journey is to identify your goal. Personally, I want my body to look a certain way, have a certain energy level, and be able to perform certain physical feats, like one-arm pushups. If I can get to those goals with less pain or fewer hours invested, then what is the point of in spending more time or hurting more?

Let’s not become addicted to pain and effort. I know there are professional fitness models out there (Rob Riches) who spend just a few hours in the gym each week because they know the exact combination of diet and exercise that works best for them.

Also, knowing the difference between the burn and “Stop right now!” pain is crucial. I went for a cleaning at my dentist’s a few months ago, and the hygienist showed me the scars from her arch operation as a result of running too hard; then, she told me about how she messed up all the tendons in the other ankle by hopping around on that foot instead of riding one of those little scooters. Turned out that the dentist had gotten one of those characteristic bodybuilder injuries and had torn his bicep completely free of the tendon.

Often it seems that ordinary people like this internalize the “no pain, no gain idea” to the point of not listening to their own bodies.

CR June 29, 2010 at 12:57 am


I think that all of us who train need to consider why we are training. Most of us don’t have an immediate or time constraint to develop or physique or performance and therefore don’t need to tear down our muscle fiber rapidly for rapid growth.

Also most elite atheletes have major health issues as they grow older. I personally believe that a little discomfort is OK, but there is really no need to endure pain.

Pain tells us one thing, something is being injured. Invoking emotional distraction through swearing or forcing your mind to think of something ugly or very pleasant simply allows us to take our mind off the pain before us, kind of like the way you think of something different when having Sex if you really want to give your lady a prolonged treat.

I have been doing the PX90 program and although I bring it, I keep it within reason as I have no demand to grow super strong super fast. Most of us just want to stay toned lean and strong.

As always you have raised a fasinating point. The link between pain and fitness. I don’t think the UPS man is sore everyday, but they are all strong as an Ox.

John Richards September 28, 2010 at 11:31 pm

Sorry, but Linda sounds like a right pain! I am not an elite athlete, and know my limits, but boy I do limit my calorie intake based on the level of exercise at any given time.

kamagra October 14, 2010 at 3:01 pm

I think that elite athletes not only have a higher pain threshold and push themselves harder than most, but also have the ability to be consistent. It is easy to not exercise on the days that you really don’t want to. The true elite athletes do it anyways.

Consistency and not giving up go a long way in achieving not only six pack abs, but success in anything that you try. It may take longer than you think it will, but once you quit, it’s game over and you will never achieve it.

In the words of the great Winston Churchill, “Never give up, never, ever give up.”

Gary - Simple Exercises November 19, 2010 at 7:11 pm

I think a high pain threshold must have something to do with cardio strength. If you push yourself through the pain, your workout routine will naturally become easier next time, driving you to higher levels of fitness.

Seane November 30, 2010 at 5:02 am

This is the look of two people who have a fitness and physique to die for. I too believe that athletes have a higher pain threshold as they are accustomed to pushing their bodies to the limits.

Cai - December 10, 2010 at 10:55 pm

This article has been linked back to on!

Quake Fitness – Connecting Fitness and Health blogs!

Do you have a facebook page btw?

sanket January 13, 2011 at 1:54 am

I think a high pain threshold must have something to do with cardio strength. If you push yourself through the pain, your workout routine will naturally become easier next time, driving you to higher levels of fitness.

Josef Stohwasser January 26, 2011 at 5:08 am

You can get used of pain. If you learn that suffering the (productive) pain of a workout is a good thing and you know that it gets you closer to your goals (loosing fat, getting faster and stronger) you also won’t think negative about it. It is a common symptome of our decadent society to go the path of least resistance. For many people it is normal to use a lift instead of stairs, because it is to exhausting. Our ancestors had to reduce food intake for certain periods each year (fastening during spring time). When I tell people I follow the warrior diet, I always get the same answers: “I couldn’t stand the hunger”.

So, as a conclusion: Pain is always a matter of mental discipline and mental attidude and everybody can learn to suffer, if the goal is worth it!

Ryan June 19, 2011 at 7:06 am

Hi, I’m new to reading this blog, which is why I’m commenting on such an old post, I’m working my way through the “best of” articles. I am a Royal Marines Commando (British Elite Forces) and through my experience I have found that there are in fact two different types of people in my line of work, there are those like me, who train very hard, get very fit, and pass our fitness tests because we have practiced and know that we are able, and then there are those who, as you say Rusty, have a high pain threshold, they definately aren’t as fit as my type, if we did a series of gym-style fitness tests, I’m sure I would win every time, but they pass our standards, because they are, as we like to say… tough as fuck! I believe you are correct, some people are just fit, and some people are just tough, some people are both, tht sounds like you,

Sol Hinchliffe July 14, 2011 at 12:20 am

Pain tolerance may be one of the factors, but it is something that should not be overdone. Perhaps you might have sustained some injuries in the past due to exertion and should seriously look into claims for personal injuries; and also to treat them with urgency.

Jenny August 31, 2011 at 2:27 am

I subscribe to the philosophy that pain is my best friend. If a workout is too easy and my body doesn’t feel any strain from doing it, then I have wasted my time. Of course, it is still important to keep track of the level of discomfort and not go overboard.

Kevin September 12, 2011 at 5:08 pm

I think both of these could go into play. But also, your determination and ability to stick to a goal, lets say you want to burn 300 calories, or run for 30 minutes. If you really want to see a change, and enjoy seeing results, you’re more likely to get to your goal.

You also have to separate good pain from bad pain, such as lower back pain. You may be able to still lift through the pain, but at the same time you should know you could really be messing up your back, and take a break or stop.

It could also be their self motivation to get started, some people don’t know that, at first more pain (soreness) is normal, and need to be told to keep pushing through the discomfort because eventually it will die down to minor soreness. Some people just need that little bit a knowledge and have someone help them get started (such as a personal trainer).

Personal Training Highgate November 26, 2011 at 1:16 pm

Haha 🙂
I would say def both!

Nice picture by the way, very lean couple.

Tina December 29, 2011 at 9:21 am

You make some great points here. I agree the soreness afterwards is part of it and something to deal with to get results. However, I”m thoroughly perplexed after something that happened yesterday while working out with my Mom’s best friend. Being my Mom’s best friend, she is roughly 20 yrs older than me and I’m in my 40’s. We did a really tough workout, loads of squats, sumo squats, lunges, etc. My legs were like jello and I knew I’d be sore today. She wasn’t a bit sore this morning and I am major sore. Also, I eat way healthier than her, so none of it makes sense. She never got out of breath during the whole workout while I”m huffing and puffing with my jello legs. I’m so curious as to why some of us are just different like that. Any thoughts?

C.H. January 19, 2012 at 11:41 pm

God, thank you for this article. I have been wondering this EXACT thing for the past few weeks. I do what is sometimes pretty intense martial arts training–the instructors push us hard, but they never manage to wear me out to the point of quitting. Even when they totally kick my *ss, I come back for more. In fact I’m pissed and disappointed if they don’t work me hard enough. Part of it is endorphin addiction for sure. BUT, during class I look around at the other students–many of whom have been at it much longer than me–and at some point some of them stop and rest and I just won’t. Is it because I’m in better shape than they are, or because I’m just tougher and can push through the misery? Here’s the thing, you push through on a consistent basis and then you reach a whole new level of fitness. So I think initially, when I first started, it really was mostly toughness, pride, just an unwillingness to quit ever. Now that I’ve been at it for a while and consistently pushing myself, the pay off is that, yeah, now I definitely am in better shape than they are. I’ve really been thinking about this a lot, and like success at so many other things in life it comes down to perseverance, discipline, mental toughness and yes downright pain tolerance. I have it. Many don’t. There’s a reason I’m in better shape than the large majority of people. Getting in shape feels like crap a lot of the time, let’s be honest. But to me that miserable feeling signals that I’m winning. There’s suffering (aka hard hard work) between me and my next level of fitness and I’m pushing right past it. I go up to that door…and then I walk through it. So, if it’s a chicken and egg question I feel like the perseverance and pain tolerance comes first. That enables you to achieve a basic level of fitness before all the other payoffs start to kick in. And then once you achieve fitness, you’ve got this synergy where the two work hand in hand and mutually reinforce each other such that you can begin to approach a truly elite level.

Skyler May 21, 2012 at 9:45 am

This article help me a lot,I have always been curious why my friend Mack could take a punch and feel miniscule to nothing pain related,he told me that working out as much as he did helped with that.
Although,I have a question I hope some one can help me with,I almost never work out,yet,I can lift almost just below 300 lbs,and feel nothing when a normal strength person has punched me 2-4 times.Can anybody help with that?

Karo November 26, 2012 at 2:42 pm

That’s a really nice topic. For couple years I kinda felt that i have some kind of disorder when it comes to the physical pain, cold.. I used to play football (not the american football, the real one.. see what i did there? anyway..), now I am 20 years old, I have choosed education over the sport since only way to get money out of the sport in Lithuania is basketball, women supposed to play that game, but lets get back to the topic. Out soccer trainings were hard, through puke, blood, collapse I kept training because of motivation, team spirit and such. Now, I do train, “sculpt” my body either in gym, playing soccer or jogging and the point of it is that many years as I can remember myself, I used one single phrase: THROUGH THE PAIN. Some people made fun of this point of view, some didn’t had idea why on the earth would you do such a thing and feel happy about going through it.

It’s a very well writen article, I love that point of view. Thank you.

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