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Good Pain vs Bad Pain: Stop or Power Through?

Here are 2 of my “favorite” (spoiler: actually my least favorite) phrases in the world of sports and fitness… “No pain, no gain!” and, even better… “Pain is weakness leaving the body.

I’m sure you’ve heard these at the gym or seen them on shirts or posters. But just seeing it all the time doesn’t mean it’s true.

One of the hardest things to gauge when starting to train is the acceptable and safe level of discomfort. What kind of discomfort or “pain” is to be expected, and what is cause for concern? 

The first thing to remember is that lifting – or any kind of training really – is often uncomfortable. In order to make progress, you’ll need to challenge your body in new ways. So no matter what you’re doing, prepare to be at least a little uncomfortable.

It’s also worth noting that different people find different things uncomfortable or unappealing. For example, I don’t like the feeling of being winded or the feeling of my legs burning, but some people love those things. I do really enjoy the feeling of pushing my shoulders to failure or my whole body screaming when pulling a truck, and some people hate that. None of those feelings are inherently bad or dangerous; they’re just different.

Sore vs. Hurt vs. Injured

Soreness is part of physical activity. Every person at every level of sport will feel soreness. No one is immune and there’s really not much you can do about it. It always helps to be hydrated, eat nutritious foods, and do mindful recovery (like walking, yoga, or foam rolling). But at a certain point, you have to accept that you’ll be sore sometimes.

Soreness feels like fatigue or stiffness, like a part of your body is tired. It shouldn’t be a sharp or shooting pain, and there shouldn’t be any kind of bruising or other discoloration of the sore body part(s).

When starting a new routine or adding in a new movement, it’s typical to be sore for a couple days, and the same movement will probably make you sore for 2-3 weeks until your body adjusts to it. Often, the soreness kicks in 2 days after the movement (rather than the day of or day after). We call this DOMS, or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, and it’s totally normal!

As a general rule, a thorough dynamic warmup can help alleviate some level of soreness, and you should be totally fine to train through it as long as you can maintain good control and good form in your training.

Being “hurt” is more acute than being sore. This kind of pain will generally be focused on a specific body part (muscle or joint) and often be directly related to a specific movement. However, it’s something that should dissipate within 1-2 weeks with rest and possibly some kind of anti-inflammatory assistance (like ice or ibuprofen).

You’ll sometimes hear the phrase “tweaked” used in this context, like, “I tweaked my back doing xyz.” Tweaks are also normal and happen from time to time. It’s your body’s way of being like, “Hey! Chill out on this!” And we should pay attention. Paying attention will look different for different scenarios, but generally it’ll be along the lines of dialing back weight or changing out movements for something that doesn’t cause pain.

Anything that is “hurt” or “tweaked” should resolve within 1-2 weeks mostly on its own with smart adjustments and minimal intervention.

There are 2 indications that we’ve gone beyond “hurt” and into the realm of “injured.” The first indication is that something you thought was “hurt” just isn’t getting better. If a couple weeks go by with reasonable modifications and you still feel “hurt,” there could be something more serious going on.

Another indication of injury is an acute injury. These are almost always very obvious when they happen. The pain is generally shooting and/or intense; and it’s often associated with a feeling or sound like a “pop” or “crack.” Any kind of discomfort that stops you in your tracks should be immediately attended to.

Injuries take a longer time to heal and could require additional attention from a qualified medical professional. Sometimes we think something is an injury, and it’s actually just “hurt.” The reverse can also be true – without proper attention “hurt” can definitely turn into “injured.”

Stop or Keep Going?

It can be really hard to identify “normal pain” vs. “bad pain.” Regardless of how it feels in the moment, ultimately you always have 2 choices: stop or keep going. Here are some general guidelines for each:

You should STOP if…

  • You feel a sharp, shooting, or intense pain directly related to a movement.
  • Pain continues to worsen over a set or a workout.
  • Any bruising or swelling occurs.
  • You feel dizzy or nauseous (other than the normal lightheaded feeling that happens right after a heavy lift/set)
  • Over time (1-2 weeks) the pain doesn’t improve at all.

You can KEEP GOING if…

  • You feel a burning sensation in your muscles.
  • You hear a “pop” or “crack” but don’t feel anything (joints crack a lot and that’s fine if it’s not painful).
  • You are stiff/sore and it improves with movement, warmup, and/or stretching.
  • You dial down the weights/intensity or modify the movement and the pain lessens or goes away

The #1 Rule is… If in doubt, STOP. Especially if you’re on your own and don’t have a coach nearby, it’s always better to be conservative. One missed set or one modified movement will not ruin your progress; but one rep on top of an injury most definitely can. Additionally, you’re more likely to hinder your progress by turning “hurt” into “injured” and having to take more time off. Just chill. 

Gain Without Pain

It’s very tempting to give into the “no pain no gain” mentality. We’re constantly bombarded with messaging about being “tough” and pushing through challenges. The truth is that training will be uncomfortable, you’ll sometimes be sore, and if you do any activity long enough you’ll probably get hurt at some point. But you should never be in consistent pain

Pain is not weakness. It’s your body telling you what it needs. Part of the training journey is getting to know and trust your body. As you learn how to do that, it’s always a good idea to have someone knowledgeable nearby, like a coach. A good coach will help guide you through how your body is feeling and make appropriate recommendations. Ignoring the pain and not verbalizing it to a coach does not make you stronger and will not make the pain go away

Always communicate how you’re feeling with your coach, or be honest with yourself about continuing to train. If you’re just uncomfortable, keep at it! But if your body is trying to tell you something… stop and listen.

We know this can be a pretty overwhelming process, and lifting can be scary. But it doesn’t need to be! There are plenty of ways to lift safely and make loads of progress *without* being in pain. Want to know how? Just click here to set up a time to chat with a PPG coach. We’ll help you identify what your body needs right now and the best steps forward.

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