You grimace as you push through that last rep but although your facial expression says otherwise, you’re loving it. And that’s because you know that when it hurts you’re building more muscle.
It hurts because when you push through a squat, for example, you create micro tears in your tissue, and when those tears repair naturally the affected muscle grows thicker and stronger than before.
But sometimes that pain isn’t a good sign. Sometimes if you don’t give your body time to mend itself properly, or if you push your muscles so far that they suffer more than micro tears, it could stop you working out completely.
To avoid overworking your muscles, and consequently suffering a possible serious injury, you simply need to be able to recognize the difference between good pain and bad pain.
Are you overdoing it?
“The topic of ‘no pain no gain’ is one that arises almost daily in my practice,” says Desirea D Caucci, a doctor of physical therapy. “We tend to advise athletes to follow a simple pain number scale (out of 10) for determining the ‘allowable’ amount of pain with exercise.
“If you consider the exercise painfree, you score it a zero, moderate pain is a five and excruciating pain is a 10. During rehabilitation of an injury where there is baseline pain present prior to initiating the workout, we allow up to moderate pain but no greater than a seven.”
If you’re experiencing pain you consider to be above a five on the scale then look out for other signs you could be overdoing it. One failsafe indicator is a drop in performance.
“Once your muscles get familiar with specific movement patterns,” says Dr Caucci, “the same activity at the same intensity will no longer result in soreness.
“Therefore if you’ve been doing roughly the same workout for some time and notice new or different pain it could be that you’re doing something wrong. Maybe you haven’t been getting enough sleep lately so you’re lacking in energy so your position is suffering, for example.
“Or maybe you’re not eating as healthily as you should, or getting enough liquids. All these factors could have an impact on your performance and therefore your pain levels.
“Another sign that you’re overdoing it is suffering muscle soreness that lasts longer than usual. So if you feel sore after a workout, that’s fine, as long as it doesn’t last longer than a day or so. It’s normal to ‘feel’ the effects of your workout 24 hours after your session and even up to three days later. This is termed delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and is considered a sign that your muscle tissue has been stressed beyond what it’s used to, resulting in muscle growth.”
When to know if something is wrong
If the pain lasts any longer, or if it increases, then there could be something seriously wrong.
A soreness that appears only on one side of your body is usually a sign of something more serious than DOMS; similarly, with a sudden pain. “If the pain is described as sharp or shooting, it is suspect for impending injury,” says Dr Caucci. “At that point, the exercise intensity (weight) should be reduced. If pain remains still, the exercise should either be modified to a smaller range of motion or stopped altogether.”
There are ways to try and avoid muscle pain after a workout. Stretching used to be considered optimal but new research – one study from Austin State University, US, and another from the University of Zagreb, Croatia – has found that it can have the reverse effect, leaving study participants feeling weaker and less stable during their workout.
In fact the Croatian study even went so far as to calculate how much weaker your muscles are after static stretching – 5.5%. When individuals in the study held stretches for longer, the weakness increased.
These studies, however, focused on static stretching, where you bend a limb and hold it in place. But dynamic stretching or warming-up is still thought to have benefits.
This is where you stretch while moving (high leg kicks or jumping jacks are two examples), repeating the same move several times.
However, even with a good warmup, sometimes your body still isn’t ready for a bout of exercise. For example, if you’re dehydrated your muscles can really struggle to provide the power you need. If you’ve been sick your body may just be recovering and therefore not have the energy or nutrients required to build new muscle.
Could your diet be the problem?
If you’re not getting enough protein in your diet your muscles may not have the ability to recover after a workout. Minerals such as magnesium and calcium are essential, too, for building muscle.
Magnesium is one of the most important minerals for your muscles, and will help decrease post-workout soreness, because it’s essential for synthesizing protein.
Furthermore, research conducted at Western Washington University, US, found that weightlifters who took magnesium supplements appeared to be stronger when working their quads than those who didn’t.
Eating more protein than usual can cause your body to expel calcium at a faster rate which means you may need to up your intake. So if you haven’t been getting enough dark leafy greens or seeds (both are magnesium-rich) or dairy in your diet, your muscles might suffer more than usual.
So you’ve done your workout and you know you pushed your muscles hard. Now’s the time to hit the shower and not just because you’ve sweated buckets. Many trainers recommend running the shower cold after a workout, the idea being that this reduces pain.
Researchers from the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland, analyzed data from several studies to assess this and found that cold-water baths do work. The water in these studies, however, was between 10°C and 15°C and participants were immersed for more than 20 minutes.
And if you’re still crying in pain like a baby, it won’t hurt to pop a painkiller once in a while. You’re only human after all.
Find training advice and more in every issue of TRAIN magazine.