The Difference Between “Good” and “Bad” Pain During Exercise

Pain is your body’s way of telling you something is up, and yes, there is definitely a difference between normal soreness, which says, “Hey, you had a great work out!” and injury related pain, which says “Whoa, something serious is happening here.” Making that distinction is key if you want to get an effective work out and avoid hurting yourself. So let’s get down to deciphering your body’s language.

GOOD PAIN

Though it may make it tough for you to walk up and down the stairs, some muscle soreness is normal, good pain. As long as you’re feeling that soreness in the places that were targeted during your last work out. In other words, don’t be concerned when you wake up the next day after a hard workout feeling a little tight and achy. (You’re likely experiencing DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness.)

On the flip side, if you did 50 sit-ups and now your lower back feels sore, that’s an indication that your form or execution was off. You’ll need to correct that if you want to get results in your abs without hurting your back in the process.

Generally, mild soreness that lasts less than 48 hours means you are good to go.

BAD PAIN

We’ve all heard the expression: “No pain, No gain,” but that’s not always a great rule to follow. You need to look out for pain that is sharp and localized (felt in one specific spot or area). This is bad pain, and is likely a warning sign of a more serious injury, such as a tear. Three examples of bad pain:

1. Pulled Muscle If you feel a sudden tightening during an exercise, you’ve probably pulled a muscle and how you should respond depends on the severity of the pull. Again, this could be a sign from your body that you’re over doing it or that your form is off. Take a break from that particular move or activity until the muscle recovers. You can tell if a muscle pull is more serious if it bothers you even when you move gently, or if the pain persists longer than two weeks. If that’s the case, make an appointment with your doctor.

2. Achy Joints If you’re doing a kettle bell swing and all of a sudden you feel a sharp pain in your back, it’s time to stop. Soreness or achiness in your joints can also be a warning that your muscles aren’t absorbing the force properly, and that the soft tissue around your joints (tendons, retinaculum, and musculotendinous junction, for example) is absorbing too much force.

3. Pain that increases Any kind of pain (sharp, dull, or otherwise) that progressively gets worse, and more intense as you workout is bad news. If you experience any of this, take a break from activity until you can get to your doctor and have it checked out.

In general, injury-related pain occurs when a muscle is overused, likely because it is compensating for another area of the body that has shut down. I see many patients who come in with hamstring pulls caused by glutes that aren’t working properly, for instance.

TO AVOID PAIN

Avoiding pain is one of the biggest reasons why you should be doing a dynamic warm up before working out. It’s the number one way to prevent overuse injuries.

A dynamic warm up includes moves that prepare your body for activity by turning on the muscles that aren’t working, making them limber and long. It also helps ensure the muscles you target are actually the ones that do the work.

Bottom line, you need to listen to your body. By understanding different types of pain, you will know your body better and be more responsive to its needs.

David Reavy
David Reavy

React_logoDavid Reavy is the founder and CEO of React Physical Therapy and creator of the Reavy Method. David’s own experiences with the limitations of traditional physical therapy inspired him to develop the Reavy Method, now recognized by the Illinois Physical Therapy Association as a continuing education course for physical therapists. The Reavy Method creates strength through balance using dynamic assessment, muscle release, and muscle activation. By balancing the body, the Reavy Method not only brings patients back to their previous level of function but also helps them become stronger than ever. David is a board certified clinical specialist in orthopedic physical therapy with credentials from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Past and current clients include Matt Forte, Tracy McGrady, and the many clients that come through React Physical Therapy in Chicago, IL every day. Follow React Physical Therapy on Twitter and Facebook.

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