“No pain, no gain” is probably one of the most overheard sayings when it comes to working out.
While some level of discomfort can be the hallmark of a great workout, there are a few types of pain that should never be ignored, no matter how tough you claim to be. So, where do we draw the line between “good” pain that yields results and the “bad” pain that leaves you vulnerable to injury?
To answer this question, let’s start by exploring what is meant by “good” pain and how it affects typical workouts. Then, you’ll learn about signs and symptoms that indicate you may be dealing with “bad” pain, and what you should do about it.
Defining “good” pain during exercise: what to expect
Regardless of your preferred method of exercise, all physical activity stresses the body in some way. That being said, the stressful environment that is created through exercise is how we build strength and endurance. However, this process does not come without a cost. Usually, this cost comes in the form of pain, whether it is immediate or delayed.
Low levels of soreness associated with exercise, aka “good” pain, are normal. This pain comes from microtrauma and inflammation within your tendons and muscles that eventually lead to those infamous #gains. Also, certain types of exercise, like high intensity workouts, can produce a build-up of lactic acid in your muscles that is responsible for the “burning” pain that you feel towards the end of your set.
Now, don’t let the word “microtrauma” alarm you. These small muscle tears are repaired during sleep and are considered to be a normal response to physical activity. Afterwards, you should expect to feel “achy,” especially when you try a new exercise or revisit an old one that you haven’t done in a while. Give your muscles a few days to recover, and this “good” pain will disappear. Reminder: this is the reason why rest days are so important. Read more about rest days here.
What is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)?
Another common form of “good” pain associated with exercise is known as delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. This type of pain typically develops when you jump into a new activity, particularly without a proper warm-up. Usually, DOMS develops a couple of days later, but it also can happen immediately after exercise. The timing of DOMS depends upon the amount of microtrauma and inflammation in your muscles. Unfortunately, there is no proven treatment to shorten the recovery period of DOMS. Nevertheless, the soreness only lasts for a few days before going away on its own.
You may be wondering, “can I work out with this type of pain?” and the answer is not clear-cut. If you’re experiencing mild DOMS, then it’s probably okay to do a light workout with a proper warm-up and cooldown. Related: What's the Best Way to Warm Up For a Workout?
Otherwise, give yourself a few days before committing to one of Fitness Blender’s more strenuous workouts. There is a fine line between microtrauma that builds muscle versus microdamage that leads to persistent pain. We definitely want to avoid the latter.
“Bad” pain that you should watch out for
We’ve all been conditioned to realize that pain during exercise might be a sign to stop. And for good reason - pain represents injury and can indicate muscle stress or strain. But, as we’ve discussed above, sometimes the line between “good” and “bad” pain is not always evident.
However, a strong, sharp, or persistent pain that develops during exercise is a different matter and should be considered to be a huge red flag. Usually, this means that something is not working properly and may indicate problems with a tendon, bone, or another internal structure.
Here are a few other types of “bad” pain that you should watch out for:
1. Pain and swelling
The “pain and swelling” combination is something that should never be ignored. Swelling is the body’s immediate response to inflammation, injury, or some other serious issue. If you experience pain that is immediately followed by swelling in the nearby area, this is your cue to stop what you’re doing.
2. Constant pain in one spot
Another sign of “bad” pain is constant pain in one spot. This usually won’t be a general area, like the thigh muscles, but a smaller and more localized area, like the knee or groin. If this pain goes away, then there’s probably not any cause for concern. However, if it continues to persist, especially with certain exercises, then you should get it checked out.
3. Pain that worsens during your workout
Pain that worsens with exercise or movement is a telltale sign that you are causing further damage to that specific area or joint. This is another type of pain that should not be ignored.
4. Painful “popping”
A popping sound that is accompanied by immediate pain is usually a sign of injury. A painful pop can indicate a torn ligament, tendon, or partial joint dislocation. None of these scenarios are life-threatening, but they are serious and should be taken as such.
What to do if you experience “bad” pain during a workout
Here’s what you should do if you experience a “bad” pain either during or after your workout. First and foremost, stop what you're doing. If it hurts, immediately sit down and wait for the pain to subside.
After a few moments, scan your body and assess where the pain occurred. Do you notice any swelling, redness, or tenderness? Does it still hurt, even when you’re not moving? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then refrain from returning to your workout until you can get it checked out.
However, if your pain has subsided and you do not notice any other symptoms, then slowly stand and try to gently move around. If you still feel okay, then you can probably finish your workout, but avoid placing additional stress on the area for the rest of the day.
What should you do to get rid of the “good” pain?
The gold standard of treatment for muscle soreness and DOMS is rest, but you can also incorporate gentle movements on your recovery days. These are commonly referred to as “active recovery” days and could include something like Kelli’s Static Stretching Workout for the Lower Body and Lower Back (FB Plus), a Yoga or Pilates workout (free), or some old-fashioned walking.
If you find the muscle soreness to be unbearable, then you could also try icing the area or resting it completely. There is a lot of information on anti-inflammatory medications, but always check with your physician to see if this is the right treatment approach for you. Keep in mind that inflammation is your body’s way of healing to promote muscle growth, so you may not want to halt that process entirely.
A word of caution on “good” pain: if you experience muscle soreness that lingers beyond a week or two, then consider making an appointment with a physical therapist or physician who specializes in orthopedic injuries. Sometimes, muscle soreness can mimic overuse injuries, which are injuries sustained from repetitive motion. Also, pain that prevents you from sleeping or performing daily activities is not characteristic of typical muscle soreness and may warrant further attention.
Take home points
Some discomfort during and after exercise is normal, but pain is not. Listen to your body, and never ignore sharp or localized pain, popping, or pain accompanied with swelling.
The best way to avoid “bad” pain with exercise is to perform a proper warm-up and cooldown and focus on proper exercise technique throughout the entire workout. Recurring pain associated with exercise often is due to incorrect form or technique and can lead to stress or overuse injuries.
Written for Fitness Blender by Kayla C, PT, DPT
Board-Certified Neurological Clinical Specialist
*The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.