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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

no pain, no gain

(1980’s | athletese | “can’t get something for nothing,” “there are no shortcuts,” “suffering ennobles”)

This expression blossomed in the eighties, along with various fitness crazes, notably weightlifting and aerobics. Its popularity — not its origin, for there are several earlier sightings — is frequently attributed to Jane Fonda’s first workout video (1982), which for all practical purposes created the aerobics fad. I’m pretty sure Fonda did not use the expression, at least not in the first video of what proved to be a long series; if she played a role in adding “no pain, no gain” to our vocabulary, it must have come later. But it couldn’t have come much later, because the phrase was tiresomely established within a few years.

It’s one of those expressions, like “pick your battles,” that sounds proverbial but isn’t. It was rare at best in English before 1970. (I have a compendium of proverbs and maxims published in 1888, which includes two that take advantage of the rhyme, but neither is as pithy as our latter-day proverb.) That doesn’t mean it wasn’t proverbial somewhere else, however. Google Books found three references before 1975 from Hindu texts — in the form of commentary on scripture or advice from swamis. The first hit in LexisNexis falls in an article about a guru based in Washington, D.C. (1979), though it’s not clear he uttered it. In such a context, the phrase has nothing to do with exercise or building muscle. It’s a matter of spiritual enlightenment, engaging in meditation to overcome desire and distraction. The pain is mental and emotional, but the gain is transcendent.

Well then us durn Americans got hold of the phrase and, not being noted for devotion to the finer things, we dumbed it down into gym fodder. (Many of us became familiar with the phrase from Soloflex ads in the early 1980’s.) The switch from mind to muscle remains our contribution to this expression. That and using it constantly, as we have since 1985 or so. The meaning seems blessedly straightforward and has from the beginning. In order for new things to grow, old things must pass away, and that hurts. Old muscle fibers must be torn in order to produce new, denser tissue. Mental deformations and emotional reflexes that hold us back must be confronted, dealt with, and overcome — and it will be a struggle. Self-improvement requires sacrifice. It’s cognate to the old prejudice that medicine can’t be effective if it doesn’t taste bad. If exercise doesn’t make you sore, it can’t be doing any good.

The rapid rise of the expression soon inspired a backlash, and most trainers would probably agree that “no pain, no gain” is not at all the same as “more pain, more gain,” as some might be prone to interpret it. Pain is a warning signal, and if too severe it will do more harm than good, in the gym as in the ashram. In this respect, “no pain, no gain” resembles “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” It may be true in small or even moderate doses, but some diseases or experiences leave us permanently weakened, or in a coma. (Isn’t severe depression a sort of emotional or spiritual coma?)

The phrase may have an Eastern origin, but in the west it sounds puritanical or masochistic, preferred by those who love punishment. But that may be a consequence of simple-minded Americans trying to make a limited principle cover every situation. Some rules were never intended to be guiding stars. Use in moderation. Proceed with caution.

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