No pain, no gain - right?

July 9, 2015

For some reason it is common for people to have this idea that ‘pain’ and ‘training’ go hand in hand and that if we want to see improvements we must go through some degree of pain.  Interestingly, a few of you have mentioned this concept in relation to your body this week, but in the context of your training this ‘pain’ has meant very different things for each of you. Inspired by you then, I wanted to try to elaborate on what is ‘normal’ and when pain might be a red flag for something more serious.

Why is pain so important?

Pain wrecks functional movement - that is, it affects those movements we need to perform for every day activities like putting shopping away, walking up stairs and so on, even if it’s only mild. It is a warning sign that tissues are overloaded and you should listen to pain EVERY TIME.


When pain is present, we cheat, we compensate, we avoid. What starts as a little niggle can then become a bigger problem and before we know it we have increased and persistent pain, pain during every day movements, new aches, loss of confidence and even depression.


The key to pain, is in decoding the messages you are receiving.


Muscle soreness (DOMS)

But what about the ‘no pain, no gain’ theory? It’s good to feel sore after a workout isn’t it? Soreness is different from pain, but for those new to exercise it can be hard to distinguish between the two as this feeling is new to you.


When you exercise, you get micro-tears in your muscles. This is normal. The ‘getting fitter, faster, stronger’ bit then happens at rest when, in response to your training, your body repairs and adapts.  If you go a bit overboard during training one day, this effect will be exaggerated and you may also get a bit of inflammation and soreness, known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS for short.

  • DOMS is usually at its worst 2 days after the workout, easing on day 3

  • On day 3 the soreness should be minimal or gone. If it isn’t it’s a sign that you have worked the muscle a little too much. Tell me if this happens to you!

  • Beginners are more likely to experience DOMS than experienced exercisers

  • Typical symptoms include:

    • A reduced range of movement in the associated joint (since the muscles have become shortened and tight)

    • Muscles that are tender to the touch if you self-massage

    • An awareness of the tightness and soreness when you use the muscle during every day activities, for example walking up stairs

  • DOMS should completely go away with rest, stretching, self-massage and some light exercise as these all stimulate blood flow and thus recovery. Icing the area for 10 mins a few times a day can help speed this process up.

Stretch Pain

Pain during stretches is not OK. Stretches should be taken to the point of ‘mild tension’ and might feel 'uncomfortable' but should not be taken to the point of pain or you risk injury.

  • Breathing – If you need to hold your breath during a stretch, ease off a little

  • Quivering – If a muscle is quivering during a stretch, ease off a bit

  • Stretch reflex – After 8-10 seconds in a static stretch the brain realises the muscle isn’t at risk so it eases off its initial, protective, reflex contraction. You should then be able to take the stretch deeper

  • Joint pain – If a particular muscle is overly tight, it can pull on the attachment to the bone and thus pull the joint out of alignment. This has the potential to cause a sharp pain. Ease off the stretch and check your body position to ensure joints are correctly aligned. The feeling should move from the joint back to the muscle being stretched.

Red flags

Here are some examples of pain that is not ‘normal’ to general exercise and which, if you experience, should be checked out:

  • Pins and needles or numbness accompanying the pain

  • Strong pain while doing every day simple tasks (not sport)

  • Sharp, isolated pain

  • Clunk or ‘pop’ sounds from the joint

  • Sudden loss of strength in a limb for no reason, with or without pain

  • Structurally ‘giving way’ or feeling unstable or locking up out for any reason

  • Radiation to other parts of the body

  • Pain that interferes with your sleep

Train smart everyone!


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