How to Evaluate Pain & Progress When Strength Training

Leg Press Strength Training

No pain, no gain. Please forget you ever heard this antiquated fitness mantra. It’s one of the least helpful and possibly most dangerous guidelines. Improving your level of fitness will require moving past your comfort zone, but rendering yourself so sore you can’t walk or lift things is completely unnecessary!

The volume (sets and reps of each exercise), rest (time taken between the exercises), type, and frequency (number of sessions per week) of your strength training routine should vary depending on your goals. But there’s no question it’s an essential element. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), a strength training program consisting of 8-10 exercises that target the major muscle groups should be performed at least two non-consecutive days per week. Make sure you’re doing it the right, and safe, way.

How to Select Your Starter Weight

When starting new strength exercises, it’s important to begin with a weight that allows you to execute all movements with minimal momentum and proper form. That means a complete set of 8-12 repetitions for healthy individuals or 10-15 for older or frail individuals, says ACSM. Err on the side of caution; you can always perform one set, or even the first few repetitions, with a lighter weight and go up from there. The goal is to find a weight that fatigues the muscle by the last repetition. You shouldn’t have to alter your form to perform the last few reps, but you should be looking forward to resting or moving on! If you can make it to the end of your set with ease, that’s a good sign you’re stronger than you think. Select a heavier weight next time.

Small vs. Large Muscle Groups

Smaller muscle groups require lighter weights than your larger muscle groups. But first assess the muscle group and its function in your everyday life. For example, your biceps are a smaller muscle group. But do you curl a hefty purse or diaper bag every day? How about holding a child on your hip or pulling grocery bags out of the car? I guarantee those activities require more than 3 lbs. of strength! So grab the 5 or 8 and see what happens. If you can do 8 lbs. for the front of your arm, you can probably lift about the same with the back of your arm (triceps) and your shoulders. When you move to your chest and back, increase your weights. Start by doubling the weight you use for biceps, triceps, and shoulders, then adjust. News flash: Your legs carry around your body weight every day! They get you out of chairs and upstairs. So you should be able to lift at least what you choose for chest and back, but most likely even more for squats, lunges, and deadlifts.

Building Muscle—and Weights

As you become stronger, make sure to change your weights. Within the first six weeks of a strength-training program you will be able to increase your weights rather quickly. This is due to an increase in your coordination, in addition to strength gains. Your muscles get “smarter” and you’re able to move the weight more efficiently, thus allowing you to increase the load quickly. After your initial improvements, it may take a bit of time before you’re ready to make another move up in weights. Don’t be discouraged! ACSM suggests increasing your workload by 2-10% once you can comfortably perform 1-2 repetitions over the desired numbers of reps on two consecutive occasions. Remember: Gaining strength is all about pushing yourself to be slightly uncomfortable and forcing your body to adapt. Do not be afraid to lift heavier weights (ladies, I’m talking to you!); overloading the muscle is the only way it will respond. And we want our muscles to respond to make us stronger, leaner, and less likely to get injured!

The Difference Between Pushing and Pain

It’s important to distinguish between pain and good ole fashion overload! Strength training, while meant to be challenging, should never hurt. The number one sign you are pushing too hard is experiencing pain during or after a workout session. There’s no doubt you may have a bit of residual soreness (DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness) when beginning a strength-training program—it’s a physiologic reaction to the muscle’s repair process. The tenderness should go away within 24-48 hours. If the soreness continues past this time period (or is acute during an exercise), it’s likely you were a bit too aggressive with your weight selection and you should adjust for the next few workouts.

In the end, some may still say sore muscles are the only way to know if your body is making any progress, but it’s simply not true! Slight tenderness, sure … bring it on! But risking injury and being unable to move after a workout is a sure-fire way to decide that this fitness thing is not for you, sending you backwards on your fitness journey. It’s important to strike a balance between not enough and too much to receive the best benefits of strength training. Now, get to lifting!

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Shannon Fable, 2013 IDEA and 2006 ACE Instructor of the Year, is the VP of Fitness Programming for the FIT4MOM® franchise. For more than two decades, she has helped impressive brands such as Anytime Fitness, Schwinn®, Power Systems, ACE, Silver Sneakers, and BOSU® as a fitness business and programming consultant. An experienced educator, freelance writer, and certified Book Yourself Solid® Business Coach, she helps fitness entrepreneurs navigate the industry and make more money. Fable serves as Vice Chair of the ACE Board of Directors and is the founder and co-owner of GroupEx PRO®, a cloud-based group fitness management tool.