Should your workout make you hurt?

I recently added burpees to a circuit workout I like to do. It increased the intensity just enough to push me to a new level. This circuit focuses a lot on the legs and by the time I was on my fifth and final set, I had to dig deep to muster the strength and energy to jump up at the end of my last couple burpees. My legs were already turning to jelly. Hello, fatigue!

So tell me this. Is it OK to feel pain during your workouts? No pain, no gain. Right?


Aggressive training or training with improper form often lead to muscle damage. When this happens, the muscle fibers breakdown and/or you put unnecessary stress on your jonts. If your muscles need major repair, they don’t grow back stronger and your nervous system does not adapt to accommodate that level of stress in the future. When a muscle gets seriously damaged, the blood supply to that area decreases and it becomes prone to repeated injury.

Less Pain More Gain

However, it is normal to feel some discomfort after exercise, especially if you’re just beginning to workout, you’ve pushed harder than normal, or you’re doing movements your body isn’t used to. The burning sensation you sometimes feel when you exercise is usually a sign of fatigue, not injury, and it’s OK to push through it. You have to repeatedly increase the demands you place on your muscles in order for them to adapt and your body to change.

There are two main types of muscle soreness: the buildup of lactic acid in the muscle and Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). I think it’s important to understand the difference between the two and what they imply so I’m going to break them down a little further.

Lactic Acid Buildup

Lactic acid is a byproduct of anaerobic effort. When you perform anaerobic activities, such as  strength training, resistance training, and sprint-like workouts, the energy stores in your cells get used up and lactic acid builds up. Lactic acid buildup causes discomfort between 30 and 60 minutes post exercise. Once enough oxygen is built back up, the lactate is metabolized and can be used as energy. Because of this, the pain caused by lactic acid buildup does not last for more than an hour.

Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)

DOMS is felt between 24 and 48 hours post exercise and can last for a couple days. Anyone beginning a workout routine or anyone who has recently completed unfamiliar or intense activity may experience DOMS. When muscles that aren’t normally recruited get exercised, they may form microscopic tears (nothing major or harmful). This leads to an increase of blood flow to the muscle, which leads to swelling. DOMS is a dull, aching pain that is often accompanied by tenderness and stiffness. The pain is not felt when at rest and is completely gone within a few days of it first appearing.

Recent studies indicate that DOMS is not a good measurement of whether you worked out hard or not. You can progress, gain muscle, and increase your endurance without overloading your muscles to the point that you feel discomfort. Muscle soreness is not a good way to gauge whether or not you had a “good” workout and should not be the goal. When you are sore, you often cannot perform as well during your next workout. This can cause you to progress even slower than you wish.

To avoid muscle soreness, gradually increase what you demand of your body, both in strength and in endurance. Make sure you warmup your muscles properly and stretch. Though this won’t prevent DOMS, warming up gradually increases the temperature of your muscles and makes them “stretchy,” which means they’re less likely to tear and they won’t fatigue as fast. Pain is not the goal. Keeping you pain free so you can continue to exercise is the goal.

No matter what your exercise program is, remember that injury does not lead to improvement. When you push beyond your limits, you damage your muscles. When you lift weights that are too heavy or you use incorrect form, you risk injury. To get results, you need to slow down your movement and reduce the amount of resistance (weight or load of the workout) until you can repeatedly complete an exercise with the correct form. Plan to progress slowly, adding intensity to the workout only after you’ve mastered the basics. Your muscles may fatigue during exercise, and this is normal. But if you experience true pain during exercise, you need to stop right away. You will not progress by getting injured.

FitTip: Expect muscle soreness and some discomfort as you progress to new levels of fitness. It’s good to challenge yourself but set goals that are both aggressive and attainable. Using the proper intensity and proper load will yield the best results. Injury will set you back, not move you forward. If you experience pain or discomfort that lasts for more than a couple of days then, after a proper time of rest and recuperation, you need to scale back on your load, your intensity, or both.


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