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The Concept of PAIN-FREE Strength Training

The background story...

I learned at an early age that strength training was a tool to get better, faster, and stronger. I spent my high school years hitting the weights and striving to be a better athlete. I pushed my body and accumulated injuries along the way. I was awarded all-star honors, named team captain, and helped the team win a state championship, so by those metrics I would say it worked.

Something happened when I was about to turn 30. It felt like every injury I had ever had quickly came back and created nagging aches and pains.

I had to modify and sometimes stop training. I quit playing basketball, soccer, and slow-pitch because I couldn’t recover from the games and tournaments.

I would alternate between weeks of “recovery” and shorter weeks of training to get better. It was frustrating and I was looking for answers. Even after other professionals told me to give up and not lift heavy, don’t push it, stop playing rec leagues, I wouldn’t listen to them. I was relentless.

For one, I am a person who likes to figure things out and giving up didn’t sit well. Second, I believe that our bodies are made to move and I am at my best when I am out being active and experiencing play in the sense of the word that relates to a state of flow. If you’re an active adult, you understand exactly what I am talking about. The feeling of being completely “in the zone” or “present” is one I get the most when being active. In the book “The Rise of Superman”, the author Steven Kotler describes this state as bliss and full of joy. It’s no wonder that I refused to give it up.

Many people in the fitness industry value strength training as a way to improve aesthetics, get as strong as possible, and various other metrics, which are all valid for their own reasons. I personally have always seen training as a way to allow me to express myself better through physical activity. The goal is to run, play, bike, compete, and overall experience the body in motion.

After years of learning, years of trial and error, and more years of working with others I feel that I have finally come to terms with exactly what strength training should be and how to help others like me. I call it “Pain-Free Strength Training”.

What is Pain-Free Strength Training

Pain-Free strength training puts the emphasis on training functional movements (i.e. push, pull, hinge, squat, lunge, and carry) in their maximum loaded capacity state. I didn’t make these moves up, the credit is out to many other coaches who have broken them down in length, here’s a good resource to check out by Dr. John Rusin (6 Foundational Movements That Every Person On Earth Needs to Master).

I believe functional movements are exercise variations that involve multiple joints and muscles for execution. These moves also focus on maximizing safe range of motion and control so that there is carry over into daily activities in the world. Sometimes that is for sport and other times it is for things like carrying the groceries in the house, real world things. That is different from the “functional fitness” that involves tricks and flows for aesthetics that increase injury risk, yup that stuff exists.

We will be covering exactly how to find the best exercise variation for each individual at our workshop of October 26th. Click here for details and to RSVP for the event, it’s only $25 for non-current members.

Here are examples of the exercise hierarchy we will be covering:


  1. Elevated push ups

  2. Assisted push ups

  3. Floor push ups

  4. Loaded push ups

  5. Dumbbell bench variations

  6. Barbell bench press

  7. Overhead press variations

  8. Push press variations


  1. Multi-angle band pulls

  2. Bodyweight row

  3. 3-point row

  4. Chest supported row variations

  5. Pull down variations

  6. Assisted pull ups

  7. Unassisted pull ups

  8. Loaded pull ups


  1. Glute bridge variations

  2. Pull throughs

  3. Trap bar or kettlebell deadlift

  4. Single leg variations

  5. Elevated/rack deadlift

  6. Floor deadlifts

  7. Good morning variations*


  1. Assisted squat

  2. Unassisted squat

  3. Goblet squat

  4. Single leg variations

  5. Safety bar squat

  6. Front squat

  7. Back squat

  8. Overhead squat*


  1. Assisted variations

  2. Unassisted variations

  3. Assisted with external load variations

  4. Unassisted with external load variations

Carry/Locomotive options

  1. Sled push/drag

  2. Bilateral carry variations

  3. Unilateral carry variations

  4. Overhead variations

For long term success and performance, it is important that adults find the best variation of a move or best exercise selection, according to their individual needs to train pain-free for the longest period of time.

The hierarchy above is based on my personal experience working with people and the hierarchy used for the Pain-Free Performance Specialist certification workshop from John Rusin. What it means is that you should move through the hierarchy of progressions, starting with #1, and build strength and control before advancing to the next level. This will make sure you continue to see progress in strength, muscle growth, and fat loss.

An example would be to start with TRX assisted squats to strengthen your squat pattern, then transition to body weight unassisted squats, and once that is controlled and adequate transition to goblet squats.

What is adequate is hard to explain in this short article, essentially you're looking for progress in control of the movement and the ability to do more repetitions or weight with control.

Strength training falls into a variety of rep and set schemes that will work on outcomes like strength, power, hypertrophy, or muscular endurance. There are many ways to accomplish the desired outcome and the best programs work multiple outcomes simultaneously. The table below gives a general guideline:

But in reality, it looks more like this:

In summary...

Pain-Free strength training should involve a combination of simultaneous strength modalities (strength,power, hypertrophy, and muscular endurance) that use a hierarchy based model of exercise selection that allow the trainee to have long-term benefits and pain-free practice. The secret is in exercise selection so that continuous improvement can be made and long-term consistency can be maintained.

If your goal is to improve your fitness and performance so that you can move well, stay strong or get stronger, and stay active then you’ll want to register for our upcoming workshop: Practical Strength Training for Active Adults. We will be covering the concept of Pain-Free Strength training in more depth and going through demonstrations and walkthroughs of some of the movement hierarchies. We will also be covering strength training practices for common movement faults using the best exercise selection for individuals. This workshop is October 26th from 9 am - 11 am. Check out the details here and RSVP.

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