You’ve likely heard the saying, “no pain, no gain.” If you’ve gotten the impression that some soreness while working out is normal, you would be correct. But it can be a fine line between when that soreness becomes classified as pain. Walking this line correctly is the difference between pushing just the right amount and overusing your muscles. Even though everyone’s threshold for pain is different, there is an answer that’s universal.
WHY OUR MUSCLES GET SORE
As our muscles repair themselves, one of the side effects many people experience is a dull, aching pain. Known as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), no one is immune from experiencing this pain, but the severity will vary based on type of activity and how much the muscles have adapted to that activity over time.
“It is theorized that the eccentric motion (or lengthening) of the muscles repeatedly is the actual cause of DOMS,” explains Kyle Golden, owner and personal trainer at Work It Personal Training in Austin, Texas. “During this movement, the muscle tissue incurs small tears, which breaks down the muscle so that it can rebuild to get bigger and stronger. It is this breakdown and rebuilding process that is thought to cause the delayed soreness we experience.”
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends progressing slowly when starting a new exercise routine to reduce the severity of DOMS — and advises that the soreness experienced rarely requires medical attention.
FATIGUE VS. OVERUSE
How DOMS relates to muscle fatigue and how you can gauge pain to prevent injury lies in the difference between fatigue and overuse.
Muscle fatigue is common in exercise and is the feeling you get when you can no longer perform a specific movement. DOMS and “feeling the burn” during a workout can both fall into this category.
“Both of these sensations are positive changes taking place within the muscle fibers,” says Jennifer McCamish, a Pilates instructor and personal trainer who owns Dancer’s Shape in Austin, Texas. “You unfortunately need to experience some discomfort to build muscle mass.”
With muscle fatigue, the burning sensation usually subsides shortly after you stop the movement — such as lifting weights — and your body uses this to signal that the muscles are too tired to continue.
Overuse, however, involves pushing your muscles past the point of fatigue — and this is what can lead to injury. It doesn’t just involve straining the muscle during a workout, but it can happen when you don’t give yourself adequate time to rest and recover.
“Overuse of a muscle may result in many types of damage including muscle strain, tears, tendonitis and stress fractures,” says Golden. “Most of the time, these injuries are accompanied by fairly acute and sometimes severe, long-lasting pain.”
GOOD VS. BAD PAIN
With pain being a common denominator in the discussion of fatigue versus overuse, it is important to distinguish good pain from bad pain. Of course, pain is relative and will vary from person to person, but there are some general guidelines that athletes should know.
“In general, good sore muscle pain is a dull mild pain sensation that usually begins about 24–48 hours after exercise,” notes Golden. “With a little use and stretching, the muscle soreness should subside a little and may last a couple of days before going away completely.”
It is when the pain gets more severe, that may be a sign that an injury has occurred or that something has been strained. This bad pain can indicate that the muscles were overused.
McCamish adds that if you are experiencing consistent sharp or nagging pain that does not go away, you are most likely overtraining and have developed some type of minor injury that needs to be addressed.
HOW THIS KNOWLEDGE AFFECTS YOUR WORKOUTS
Varying your workouts is key to prevent overusing your muscles. McCamish explains that cross-training helps you to avoid the likelihood of the same muscles experiencing the same repetitious movements, which causes injuries.
There is no one-size-fits-all workout or rule of thumb for everyone, though the signs of overtraining can be felt no matter the workout regimen. Golden explains that how you exercise your muscles and to what point depends on your goals — and working to at least a light fatigued state is often part of reaching them.
“Once you start to feel the burn, due to lactic-acid buildup, you will know you have worked your muscles to their fatigued point and should consider easing up or stopping,” he concludes. “If you experience any acute pain, you are physically unable to perform a motion or exercise you could before, or are having difficulty with usual muscle function, you should stop exercising and get seek medical attention and advice.”
McCamish echoes that because everyone’s goals are different, in this case, pain should be your guide. If you experience chronic pain, it is an indication that you may have overused your muscles, and a break is warranted (if not also a medical evaluation).
“If you mix it up and do different things every day with one or two days off in a week, you should feel good and energized after working out,” she says.