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“No pain, no gain.” “Ouch…that hurts.” Both are statements about workout pains. One is meant to be a motivational mantra, while the other is someone potentially risking injury. If you want to continue making gym progress, you’re going to have to learn the difference between workout pains. One you’ll experience getting bigger, stronger, and/or leaner. The other you’ll experience right before you get injured.
The most common of bad workout pains gym goers experience is DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness. This is the ache you feel in you can start to feel in your muscles anywhere from 6-8 hours after a workout, and usually maxing out 1.5-2 days later.
While some many think that muscle soreness is caused by a buildup of lactic acid in the muscle, this is not true. A study in Clinics in Sports Medicine showed that DOMS is actually caused by microscopic trauma to the muscle and connective tissues. This is especially true during what’s known as “eccentric contraction” (i.e. – the “lowering” or “negative” part of a movement.)
Basically what’s happening is that you’re putting a load on the muscle it’s not used to performing under, and this is causing it to be damaged. Within reason, this isn’t a bad thing and this micro-trauma is necessary for muscular growth and adaptation. As you adapt to that specific workout or activity, the amount of DOMS you experience will lessen.
Getting over workout pains from DOMS the next day is fairly doable. A study in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation showed massage is very effective for this. Many have also had luck with foam rolling, contrast showers, and epsom salt baths.
By nature, working out is supposed to be difficult. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t elicit a proper training response, and you’d never develop more size and strength. However, newbie gym goers can often have a hard time discerning different types of workout pains.
By and large, any sort of fatigue you experience is going to happen gradually. This will, of course, vary depending on the type of workout you’re doing, but you’ll start off feeling fine. The work you’re currently doing (be it heavy sets, max rep burnouts, or even cardio) will then start to require more and more effort and your part.
This can feel difficult, and may even be construed as “painful”. But it’s only you getting more tired, and is something you can mentally push through. In fact, many would even consider this a “good” workout pain, as it usually means you’re working hard. While fatigue shouldn’t be the goal of your workout, that doesn’t mean experiencing it is a bad thing.
If while training you experience any sort of sudden, sharp, or out of nowhere painful sensation, that could be indicative of something harmful. If this happens, go ahead and terminate your set. And if these sort of workout pains occur in the joints (rather than the muscle), definitely stop what you’re doing immediately.
There’s no real prescription for what to do if you suddenly experience something like this, as there are simply too many potential causes. You could be using entirely too much weight, using very bad form, or about to suffer a freak injury. After stopping your set, try another to see if the pain has subsided. If not, you should seek out qualified help.
First find an experienced trainer who might be able to assess your exercise execution. Or failing that, do your best by watching workout videos to make sure you’re using correct form. If that doesn’t help, you may want to talk to a doctor or physical therapist to see if you have any potential pre-existing or congenital issues that need to be addressed.
After some more gym experience, you’ll get to know your own body better, know how hard you can push yourself, and know when something means you’re about to get hurt. Pay attention, be smart, and you’ll be able to work as hard as you like while still staying healthy. Just remember that if all else fails, seeking out a qualified trainer or medical professional for advice is never a bad idea.