Everybody’s goal when they work out is to get results. Sure, some people hit the gym or put in that INSANITY DVD simply for the joy of it, enjoying the exercise and sweat as its own result, but most of us (c’mon, all of us) are doing it to get results. Lose weight, gain muscle, improve health, stay young, gain flexibility, train for a sport, something, anything. Now, we know you don’t get results straight away, nobody really goes to the bathroom mirror the next morning expecting to see a radical change, but all of us relish that deep ache that we get in our muscles after a good workout. That smoldering burn that makes us wince a little as we go about our day, that we wear as a badge of honor. We love that burn, but at what point does that burn become pain? How do we know when to stop? Or should we push forward, into that pain, and perhaps get more results?

If you go back to 1982, you’ll hear Jane Fonda calling out, “No pain, no gain!” in her aerobics videos. That catchphrase took off, and soon was being used by everybody for all sorts of reasons. Where Jane Fonda meant that you needed to push past your muscle fatigue into the realm of aches, many people in the muscle building world began to understand it as a call to pushing into the realm of pain. That tearing muscle was the way to get big, that being hardcore meant pushing into the realm of actual pain.

That myth has been firmly discounted. Only amateurs actually believe that you need to feel real pain in order to make gains. However, as Tony Horton of P90X repeatedly tells us, you need to push past that point where you don’t think you can go any further. Most people quit early. They don’t think they can do another rep, another set. That’s a mental block, a lack of faith or conviction that you can actually do more. Most people who begin a serious workout program don’t actually know what their actual limits are. They don’t know just how far they can push themselves, and so they stop early, fearing that ache, that burn. So while you should avoid pain, you should definitely push yourself as hard as you can.

So what is the difference really between ‘pain’ and ‘ache’? An ache is something that smolders and burns, that resides deep within your muscle like fog in a city street. Pain is something sharp and tearing, it’s a live wire going off in your muscle or joint, it’s sudden and burns like a fire, not smolders like an ache. Often you can sense that pain coming just before it hits–you’re doing too much weight, you’re pushing an injured muscle, you’re being stubborn when your body is telling you to stop. You keep going, into the realm of pain, and then SNAP, something gives way, and you’re out of the game for the next three months as you heal up.

So what’s the difference between an ache and real pain? One burns the next morning, the other puts you out of commission. One comes from pushing your limits sensibly, the other comes from pride and stubbornness, where you push yourself past all the red flags. What’s the lesson here? Know that you can push yourself harder than you think–but be aware of when that ache is edging into the red, and stop before you hurt yourself!