Understanding The Different Types Of Workout Pain
“No pain, no gain”.
We’ve all heard this one before, right?
The idea that if you want to build muscle, get stronger, or even lose some of that excess body fat, that you’re going to have to hurt.
That a certain amount of workout pain is just part of the process – an unavoidable component of your path to success.
Well, as it turns out, the whole ‘no pain, no gain’ thing isn’t as clear cut as you might think.
You see, there isn’t just one sort of workout pain…
No, there are ‘good’ types of workout pain, and then there are ‘bad’ types of workout pain.
The good pain often (but not always) is a sign that you’re making progress – whereas the bad pain probably means that you’ve hurt yourself, or are on the road to doing so.
Of course, it should go without saying that you’ll want to learn to accept the good pain, while avoiding the bad pain…
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to tell the difference between the two types of pain – especially if you’re new to working out.
To help with this, we’ve put together a series of 6 simple diagnostic questions that you can ask yourself to determine the type of pain you have, and what you should do about it.
Let’s take a look.
Is It A Joint Pain Or A Muscle Pain?
We want to get this one out of the way first, since it is perhaps the most important distinguisher of whether the pain is of the good or bad variety.
Simply put, if you are feeling pain in any of your joints – regardless of the specific joint or the intensity of the pain – then it is undeniably a bad type of pain.
You never, ever want to feel joint pain while working out, so this is an easy one to put into the bad category.
On the other hand, if you are feeling pain in your muscles, it could be either a good or bad sort of pain, so you’ll have to look at some of the other factors to decide.
Does It Hurt While You’re Working Out?
Some types of pain only appear after your workouts, whereas others surface during the workout itself.
Generally speaking, soreness after your workout is more likely to be a good pain than if it occurs during the workout itself.
If you have muscle pain after your workouts, as long as it’s not too severe, then it is likely to just be a bit of DOMS, which stands for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.
At the same time, having some muscle fatigue during your workouts, known as muscle pump, is completely normal and nothing to worry about.
Where Does It Hurt?
There are some areas that are likely to get sore during your workouts.
Unsurprisingly, these are the specific muscle groups that you are training that day – so if you are doing chest exercises, it follows that your chest will get sore.
You also may experience sore triceps or shoulders, since those are supporting muscles for many chest exercises, like bench presses and dips.
A certain level of soreness here – either during or after your workouts – is completely normal.
On the other hand, if areas unrelated to where you’ve trained are hurting, this could indicate a problem.
So if you’ve just done bicep curls, and your lower back starts hurting – or you’ve been doing squats and you feel a pain in your shoulder – then it is likely to be a bad type of pain that you shouldn’t be feeling.
Is The Pain Intense Or Sudden?
The nature of the pain itself can also be a useful indicator.
If you feel a dull, low-grade muscle pain that slowly becomes more sore while you are working out, isolated only to the muscles that you’re training, then that is fine.
However, if you suddenly feel a sharp pain that seems like it came out of nowhere, or if the pain is at all intense and overpowering, then don’t just push on with your sets.
It’s likely to be an indicator that something has gone wrong, and possibly even a muscle tear, so you should stop what you’re doing immediately.
Is It A Shooting Or Radiating Pain?
Following on from the previous point, if the pain feels like it’s shooting or radiating, it could be a sign of something more serious.
For instance, if you feel a pain moving down your arm or leg, instead of just localized in a single area.
In these cases, it can often indicate that there is a spinal issue, such as a pinched nerve, so best to get that looked at by your doctor if the pain persists.
How Long Does It Last For After Working Out?
Regardless of whether the pain started during or after your workout, another factor to look for is how quickly it tends to subside.
Generally, most normal muscle soreness will peak about 2 days after working out, and will be completely gone within 5 days or so, getting progressively better each day.
However, when you’ve strained your muscle – like if you’ve hurt your lower back while deadlifting – it can take 1-2 weeks to feel better, and sometimes longer.
With joint pain, it may start to get better fairly quickly after working out (within a couple days), but then repeatedly flare up again following your workouts.
Only the first type here would be considered a ‘good’ pain, whereas the other two are likely to be the result of an actual injury.
How To Prevent Workout Pain
First of all, if you do think that you are experiencing a ‘bad’ form of workout pain, then you should stop doing any exercises that seem to cause or intensify that pain!
That should be pretty obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people just try to suck it up and ‘work through’ the pain – often even finishing up their workouts after suffering an injury.
Don’t do this!
You’ll only end up making the problem worse, and something that may have only taken days to heal will now take weeks.
Instead, you should take a step back, and make sure that you have perfect form for any of the exercises that you think caused the pain.
If it is joint pain specifically, we also suggest reading through this article on preventing joint injuries here, for some additional tips.
Finally, if you start experiencing the bad type of workout pain, you should consider taking a week off (or a deload week) to let yourself recover properly. In fact, you should be taking periodic deload/rest weeks anyway!
And, of course, if the pain persists and doesn’t seem to be getting better, you should consult your doctor to make sure that it isn’t anything serious.
Now, on the other hand, if you happen to have the ‘good’ sort of workout pain, then there isn’t too much that you can do but wait for it to subside.
As we mentioned before, a degree of DOMS is normal, especially if you’re newer to working out, or haven’t done a particular exercise before, so you can rest assured that it likely won’t be as sore in the future.
So just ice it for the first couple days, focus on eating right, and try to get as much rest as possible.
Summarizing Workout Pain
In summary, determining whether you have ‘good’ or ‘bad’ workout pain is actually pretty simple.
The good kind of workout pain is only felt in the muscles that you’re training, tends to peak after 2 days, and gradually subsides over the following 3-5 days.
It can feel pretty sore, and even make walking painful if it’s in your legs, but it shouldn’t be sharp, stabbing, or radiating in nature.
All other kinds of workout pain – joint injuries, muscle tears, sprains, pains in muscles that you’re not training – should be put in the ‘bad’ pain camp, and every attempt should be made to isolate the cause so that you can avoid it in the future.