We are all familiar with the slogan “no pain, no gain” when it comes to exercise. While sometimes this is true, and you do need to be able to tolerate a certain amount of pain during exercise to actually see results, there are certain signs from your body that the pain has reached a level that can cause serious harm, especially if ignored continuously.


There is a distinct and important difference between pain during your workout that needs to be taken seriously (as in, something is wrong), and good, normal pain that means you are working hard and that your body is changing. In fact, a recent study in the journal, Pain, showed that embracing a certain amount of pain during an intense workout can actually increase the body’s pain tolerance and therefore also allow us to progress and up our load during exercise.

For strength to increase with exercise, there is the need for “good pain,” and it’s essential to distinguish between good pain and the pain that means you’ve gone too far. An appropriate amount of pain in a workout is pain that only lasts during the actual exercise itself (especially with weight lifting), and will probably carry over into a certain amount of post workout soreness, typically not more than 48 hours.

However, if you feel pain after your exercise and/or are so continuously sore that it interferes with day to day activities, you are probably pushing too hard and could be setting yourself up for a more serious injury.

Also, pay attention to which muscles are sore after a workout, as this can be an indicator as to whether you are executing your movements with proper form. For example, if your low back is very sore after doing abdominal work, you are likely performing your movements with poor form. It is of utmost importance with any strength-based exercise to make sure you are coached in proper form in order to avoid injury.


Localized, sharp pain

First of all, know the difference between general soreness and localized or sharp pain. Pain is bad if it is felt in one particular spot, and is sharp. This can be a sign of injury. For example, if you are squatting with a heavy barbell or doing a kettle bell swing, and suddenly feel a sharp pain that wasn’t present before, you should stop the movement.

Joint pain

If you feel pain in your joints (especially sharp pain during an exercise), that is a warning sign. Furthermore, if your joints are constantly achy or sore, this could be a sign that the joints, tendons and soft tissue surrounding the joints are absorbing too much force, and that your muscles are not.

Pulled muscles

Pulling a muscle is definitely a bad sort of pain, and feels like a sudden tightening during exercise. The amount of pain felt will depend on the severity of the muscle pulled, but this is generally a sign that you are executing a movement with poor form, or you are overdoing it. If you experience a pulled muscle, stop the exercise and rest the muscle until it fully heals. If it bothers you even with gentle movements or if the pain persists for longer than 10 days, you might need to see a doctor.

Pain that gets worse instead of better

If you experience pain during a workout and it increases during your session and beyond, this is a bad sign and could point to an injury. If it continues to worsen over a couple of days, don’t hesitate to see a doctor or trusted physical therapist. Muscle overuse and compensation is often at the root of injury related to exercise.


First and foremost, know how to distinguish between the two, and understand the signals your body is sending. Knowing when to stop an exercise and allow your body the rest and recovery time it needs it key.

Second, be sure to always do a dynamic warm-up. This is a movement-based warm up that prepares your muscles and joints for the specific types of exercises you’ll be doing that day. For example, if you are doing weighted squats during a workout, bodyweight squats should definitely be included in your warm-up. Also, include exercises that target mobility and flexibility into your routine, as this will help avoid injuries.

Don’t rush through your warm-ups, which means setting aside at least 10 minutes to prepare your body for more intense exercise. Static stretching (the type where you hold a stretch for 30 seconds or more) is fine, but is best done after a workout, and not before.

By learning to understand the difference between good and productive pain versus bad and harmful pain during exercise, you can set yourself up for maximum progress towards your goals, and keep your body safe.

Rachel Fiske, NC, CPT-NASM Rachel Fiske is a Holistic Nutrition Consultant and graduated from Bauman College of Holistic Nutrition in Berkeley, California, and a Certified Personal Trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Rachel works with clients individually via skype, focusing on issues of weight management, GI problems, hormonal imbalances, fatigue and more via a whole foods diet and lifestyle changes. Consultations include diet journal analysis, individualized menu planning, and herbal/supplementation protocols.