By Jesse Wirges
No pain, no gain … right?! Well, not necessarily.
When it comes to exercise and fitness gains, the concept is actually quite a gray area. Many fitness fanatics preach that in order for you to have a good and effective workout, you shouldn’t be able to even walk out of the gym let alone stand up days later, but this cannot be further from the truth.
Before getting into how you should feel after a workout, this idea of “pain” needs to be defined.
Good pain increases gains
There is a huge difference between a slight discomfort that naturally results from exercise and pain that indicates injury. Pain that comes in the form of a burning sensation as a result of a properly performed exercise is normal and even indicates efficient stress is being placed on that particular muscle.
During strength training, as you are performing a difficult exercise, your muscle is experiencing micro-tears on a deep, cellular level which results in lactic acid to be released causing a burning sensation. This burn then gradually decreases once the activity is stopped.
This is a good thing! This means the muscle is being properly challenged and is required it to rebuild, recover, and become a stronger version of itself in order to defend itself from those same tears from happening when performing that same exercise in the future.
So, this type of pain during activity should not be avoided as it helps you gauge your workout intensity to ensure you are reaping the benefits of your hard work.
In the form of cardio, this “pain” can feel like burning lungs, fatigued muscles, and increased body temperature, which indicates that you are placing enough of a stress on your cardiovascular system to encourage bodily adaptation and recovery. You may begin to sweat, your legs might start to feel like “jello,” and you will most likely be gasping for breath.
However, this “pain” is only temporary and usually subsides after the activity is completed and your body is slowly able to get back to its homeostasis or stable internal environment. Although in the moment this type of discomfort does not necessarily feel good, it produces incredible bodily adaptation, increased cardiovascular endurance, countless health benefits, and fitness gains!
Bad pain leads to injury
But let’s consider the flip side. There is a type of pain that is, in actuality, your body communicating to your brain to stop doing that particular activity or motion because it is harmful. This pain is a signal that predicts a future injury if that overload is sustained for much longer.
This type of pain is usually acute, sharp, localized, and occurs suddenly―not gradually dissipating once stopping the activity. It can also feel like a pulling sensation indicating the muscle is being stretched beyond its current ability to do so. Pushing through this type of pain can lead to a more severe injury and require even more time to fully repair, thus setting you back from your goals for days, weeks, or even months.
Injury pain will diminish, depending on the ability of the muscle to recover with enough time and rest, but may require treatment in severe instances.
How do I distinguish between good and bad pain?
So how should you feel after a workout? What indicates you have worked out hard enough to reap the benefits, but not so hard that you are actually causing too much damage and are unable to walk for days on end? The answer to this question depends on you, your workout history, age, and overall ability to recover.
If you are new to a particular exercise, focus on enjoyment and a slow, gradual increase in intensity initially. Focus your energy more into working on proper form and learning how an exercise ought to feel when the proper muscles are recruited prior to increasing the workload.
Remember, you do not always need to feel pain to reap gains! Your body is learning something new and without even feeling discomfort or soreness you are reaping the benefits of that activity. So no pain, but still incredible gain.
However, if you are very experienced with a particular exercise, you can increase the intensity through progressive overload just enough to perhaps feel a bit of soreness a day or two after the workout, but not so much that you are breaking down your muscles and putting yourself out of commission for several days.
Delayed onset muscle soreness or “DOMS” is the discomfort or stiffness that is primarily felt 12-24 hours post-exercise simply due to the micro-tears experienced by the muscle from the strenuous and challenging nature of the workout. This soreness usually only lasts for a few days.
If it lasts longer than this and has your muscles feeling tender to the touch, difficult to move through its full range of motion, or excessive swelling occurs, it could mean the muscle experienced so many micro-tears that it needs multiple days to fully heal. This is not beneficial or desirable because, done too often, this can make you more prone to injury and increase the chances of overtraining. DOMS can be reduced with stretching, light exercise, adequate hydration, and proper nutrition.
So take your time in ramping up the intensity level in your workouts. Be in tune with how your body feels before, during, and after activity to ensure you are not putting yourself at risk for injury. Slow and steady is the key to increasing an activity’s intensity level in order to prevent excessive stress being placed on the body and encourage continuous progress.