“No Pain, No Gain”: Fact or Fiction

We’ve all heard “no pain, no gain”. It’s a fun statement that motivates us to push through a difficult workout. But how much of this is true, and how much of this is fiction? What kind of pain is normal, and what kind of pain indicates injury?

First of all, it’s important to note that there is a difference between pain from an injury and the normal effects that exercise has on our muscles. Let’s start with the difference between “feeling the burn” and pain. You know that burning sensation that you feel during a workout? Although it might feel uncomfortable, this isn’t the same as pain that indicates injury. This is usually what people are referring to when they say “no pain, no gain”.  We LOVE a workout that creates that burning feeling in our muscles. It is a positive indicator that your body is being challenged and correctly responding to exertion- basically it’s your muscles responding to workload when they are fatiguing, especially when lifting weights or repeated physical exertion. This burn should also stop shortly after you stop working out. So go ahead and “feel the burn”!

The second feeling that we anticipate and is normal after a workout is soreness. In general, this feeling  should not last more than 48 hours after a workout. Soreness should not feel sharp, and is located in the muscles only. This is considered “good pain” to many and does not indicate that you did anything wrong or you are injured. In fact, it can be an indicator of future muscle growth. This type of soreness should lessen and eventually diminish over the next day or two after a workout. Although this is considered “good pain”, note that you might not always feel sore- the more often you workout, the more your body adapts. Generally the intensity and duration of muscle soreness will likely lessen overtime. So even if you aren’t sore after a workout, that does not mean that you’re not making progress. Some soreness is totally normal, but if your soreness worsens after 48 hours or your muscles feel really tight, even after stretching regularly, it might indicate a problem, and you should take it easy. 

Pain from an injury is different from “feeling the burn” or soreness. If you feel stabbing pain or sharp pain, you should stop what you are doing. Any musculoskeletal pain not associated with muscle soreness, such as joint pain, or pain associated with the chest (other than normal muscle soreness) is also an indicator of possible injury. Pushing through a possible injury can cause that injury to worsen. Keep in mind- often you do not know the extent of the injury until you have stopped what you are doing (for example, have you ever pulled a muscle on a run and don’t notice the extent of the pain until after you stopped?), so any indication of actual pain means you need to stop and listen to your body before you continue.

If you experience any pain that is outside of the normal sensations that your body feels when pushing yourself means that you need to stop performing the movement that is causing that pain, even if that means taking a break from that movement for a while. Sometimes it’s best to wait and see how you feel later. If you are unsure if you are feeling pain from an injury vs just being uncomfortable, check in with your body first. Make sure your form is correct. Decrease your weights if you have to. If you perform the same movement and you continue to experience pain after you’ve checked in with your body, it might be time to stop that movement, at least for a while. Once your potential injury has had time to heal (and this will be different for everyone), start slow and be mindful of how your body is feeling. Ask yourself- what are you feeling? Is it “the burn”, soreness from a previous workout, or is this a new feeling? Assess how you feel before you continue.

Pain that persists, becomes more intense, or hinders daily activities might mean that you should seek the opinion of a medical professional. Pushing through pain that could be caused by a muscle tear, joint injury, or other possible injury will only make the problem worse. Checking with your doctor is always the safest route if you are concerned about whether your pain is “normal” or not. With any pain, even if you do not intend to see a doctor, using the RICE method as soon as possible is important to healing. Remember: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Swelling or bruising are not always immediate, so beginning the RICE method as soon as possible regardless of swelling or bruising is recommended.

Pushing yourself is great, but you don’t have to make every workout the most intense workout you’ve ever done, especially if you suspect an injury. Sometimes even just taking a walk, doing some yoga, or doing a shorter, easier workout is great! You can also perform exercises that avoid the area that is causing you pain. If you experience pain in your shoulder, for example, switching gears and focusing on an area of your body that is not causing you pain will allow you to still feel fulfilled with your workout. Plus you’ll still reap the other benefits that exercise brings such as a mood boost, boosted metabolism, and increased overall fitness!