Regular exercise is one of the three pillars of a healthy lifestyle, along with sleep and a healthy diet. That's why you make sure to get in a good sweat now and then, keeping your body active and energized.
Everything seems to be going great — until you start experiencing pain during or after your workouts.
Get a better sense of "good" versus "bad" pain from exercising, plus the most common culprits behind those achy joints, sore muscles and tired bodies.
Good and Bad Pain From Working Out: What's the Difference?
A little discomfort while you work out is a good thing! Extreme or prolonged pain, though, is not. Use these guiding tips to understand the difference between the two to make safer exercise choices today.
1. Track Pain Patterns
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) refers to those sore and achy muscles you feel 24 to 48 hours after a workout.
Don't worry — this is perfectly normal! DOMS should set in after you try a new workout, such as swapping your barre class for HIIT or rowing for running. Varying your workouts results in challenging a broader range of muscle groups, resulting in those microscopic muscle tears that cause DOMS.
However, if your muscles remain just as tight and sore after 48 hours, give them a breather. If consistent pain persists after four days and hinders moving your body or extending your limbs and joints as usual, it's time to get a doctor's opinion.
2. Stop When You Feel Sharp, Jabbing Sensations or If Pain Lasts
Mild throbbing and burning sensations while exercising are OK, such as quad heaviness while biking or biceps burning when doing curls. Keep pushing through this kind of discomfort while honoring your body. It shows your muscles are hard at work, but doing their thing.
Immediately pause your workout or rep, though, when you experience the following:
- Sudden jolting pain
- Impaired limb, joint or muscle movement
- Pain that persists when sitting or lying down
- Pain or swelling in areas where you've had prior injuries or surgery
- Tender swelling in unexpected body parts
- Pain that gets worse each day
Top Workout Mistakes That Cause "Bad" Pain
Any of the following could be the source of the prolonged, consistent muscle fatigue and joint soreness you're feeling.
1. Too Much, Too Fast
The leading cause of workout-related injuries? Diving into fitness too fast and too furiously.
Bodies need time to adjust to the unique form of stress working out induces. People with more sedentary jobs or lifestyles should be particularly conscious of starting slowly, preventing long-term muscle and connective-tissue strain.
- For strength training: For weighted workouts, ensure you're starting with lighter racks and dumbbells. Increase weight levels and reps only once you've nailed proper form, and at a minimum every two to four weeks or based on your body's cues.
- For aerobic training: Gradually increase cardio workouts — e.g., walking, running, biking, swimming, dancing — in length and intensity every one to three weeks, or by listening to your body's cues.
Consider doing a fitness audit or similar test before starting a regular workout routine. These tests provide a picture of your general cardio and strength capabilities, so you can start working out at the safest, most intuitive point for your body.
2. Over-Exercising, Especially in the Beginning
Experts recommend adults aim for 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a week, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity. They also suggest weight and resistance training at least twice a week, particularly for women and men ages 40 and up.
Overtraining beyond these recommendations can backfire, triggering muscle and tissue damage that causes pain.
You might be a little too enthusiastic about your workouts if you find yourself slipping into any of the following:
- Skipping rest days
- Having no rest days at all, or only one a week
- Working out to the point of complete exhaustion
- Doing one type of vigorous exercise week after week — e.g., only running, exclusively heavy weightlifting
Mix up your overall regimen to avoid overworking the same muscle groups. For example, one week, try biking, rowing machines and a Zumba class, then do a HIIT workout and some weightlifting routines the next.
3. Improper Form
Poor form during weightlifting, bodyweight exercises and even cardio are notorious causes of workout pain. That's because improper posture during any of these activities strains your tendons, joints, muscles and discs — which not only slows your fitness progress, but also increases your overall chance of injury.
Yes, it's intimidating to try new exercises. It can be particularly daunting to use weights and exercise machines for the first time. Don't be afraid to ask a YMCA employee, one of our trainers or even your fellow members to show you the ropes on new equipment! You'll be surprised how much this can make someone's day.
4. The Wrong Shoes
Wearing sturdy, rubber-soled shoes explicitly designed for exercise is another secret weapon against post-workout pain.
First, dedicated athletic shoes seal in and support your feet, providing the best possible stability while you walk, run, jump and lift. Second, the cushioned lining of athletic shoes prevents unwanted foot repositioning while you move, therefore supporting weight load-bearing. Third, the right shoes can increase balance, since they provide a sturdy foundation for all your movements. Last but not least, shoes add a layer of defense in the unfortunate — and painful — case you drop a weight or snap a resistance band.
5. Skipping the Stretching
We get it — life is busy. It's easy to head home straight after you've mastered the stair-climber machine and get on with your day.
However, post-workout stretching can alleviate the lactic-acid buildup in our bloodstreams that partially contributes to muscle soreness. Proper stretching before and after workouts also increases your body's total range of motion, healthily loosens muscle fibers and even helps prevent premature joint degeneration.
Studies have linked lower levels of post-workout muscle soreness with water intake before, during and after workouts. The takeaway? Stay hydrated and experience less discomfort.
The amount of water you should be drinking in a day depends on your size, age, gender, lifestyle and other factors. However, the classic eight eight-ounce glasses of water a day remains a good rule of thumb for most adults. Sound like a lot? Don't worry — about a third of that you get from the food you eat, and another quarter to a third just from the beverages you pair with your meals — so long as they're not alcoholic, which is dehydrating.
Learn Proper Exercise Form at Your Local Gateway Region YMCA
Our YMCA trainers and staff are more than happy to help answer any questions you have related to your workout regimen, form and overall exercise habits. Find the YMCA location nearest you and ask us about:
- Good stretches to target sore muscles
- Post-workout routines for better recovery
- Heating, icing and other pain-management tips
- Proper workout form on equipment
- And more
Cheers to your health!