When Should I Worry About...

Should You Still Work Out When You're Sore or in Pain?

March 14, 2022 - Katie McCallum

"No pain, no gain."

We most commonly hear this phrase while fighting through the "burn" of working out and the soreness that can follow suit — both of which come with the territory of getting stronger.

But when does this motivational mantra become more harmful than helpful?

"Through sports and exercise, many of us have been trained to push through pain at times," says Dr. Corbin Hedt, a physical therapist at Houston Methodist. "But it's important to listen to your body since pain is generally your body's way of indicating that something is going on — whether that be exercise-related muscle soreness or true pain signaling an injury."

Is it bad to work out when you're sore?

"Muscle soreness occurs because both muscle and the connective tissue around it get damaged during exercise," explains Dr. Hedt. "This is completely normal and, for the most part, nothing to worry about. In fact, this is how muscle gets stronger since it builds back a little bit better each time."

Still, muscle soreness is uncomfortable and can feel like:

  • Muscles that are tender to the touch
  • Burning pain as you use a specific muscle group
  • Discomfort that occurs as you stand, sit, squat, lift or go up and down the stairs

What's more is that this soreness can hang around for a while.

"Usually you don't actually feel sore until about 24 to 72 hours after your workout, and then this soreness can persist for up to three days," says Dr. Hedt. "This is why it's called delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS."

(Related: No, Lactic Acid Buildup Isn't What Causes Muscle Soreness After a Workout — Here's Why They Do Get Sore, Though)

And despite stretching, foam rolling or using a massage gun, you might still be dealing with sore muscles by the time your next workout rolls around. The logical question: Should you be pushing through such soreness or resting your muscles.

"Working out when sore is okay as long as it isn't affecting your movement to the point where it's causing you to compensate and do something in a way that's unsafe," says Dr. Hedt. "Muscle soreness can be a deterrent to exercising, but it's temporary and the more you exercise, the less you should feel it. This is why staying active is so important. Usually, those who stay active aren't going to get sore as much."

Even with soreness, though, there's risk in following the "no pain, no gain" mantra too closely.

"You never want to inadvertently turn some discomfort that started as nothing into something that can potentially increase your risk for injury," says Dr. Hedt.

When it's safe to "push through the pain" and when it isn't

When it comes to your workouts, it's important to listen to your body and know when something truly feels off — whether that something is muscle soreness that's compromising your form, more muscle soreness than usual or actual noxious pain that might signal injury.

"For example, if you're still sore from doing squats and this soreness is leading you to do several sets of step ups in an incorrect manner, you start to see how a small, acute issue can quickly turn into a larger or chronic exacerbation," explains Dr. Hedt.

Additionally, a big soreness event can sometimes be a sign that you're ramping exercise up too quickly, which can also increase your risk of injury.

"Sometimes the discomfort you're feeling is a consequence of going from running five miles at a time to fifteen or increasing your training volume or intensity much too quickly," says Dr. Hedt. "You've overdone it and those muscles need rest before being challenged so intensely again."

This is where cross training — that is, mixing up your exercise routine by incorporating other activities — becomes important since it can help prevent the overuse injuries you can get from repetitively or intensely using your muscles the same way over and over. (Related: 6 Ways to Keep Overuse Injuries From Disrupting Your Workouts)

Lastly, there is the discomfort that is actually true pain signaling an injury.

Watch out for pain that:

  • Is very unpleasant and begins after a specific movement or while exercising
  • Is accompanied by swelling or bruising
  • Significantly limits your range of motion or ability to complete daily functional activities
  • Lingers beyond three days
  • Keeps coming back

"This is when you want to take a step back and really consider what the cause of the discomfort might be rather than simply pushing through it," says Dr. Hedt. "For instance, if you try to run on an ankle sprain before you're ready, you can hurt yourself even more."

Is it ever safe to keep exercising through pain?

Yes and no.

"We know that being active is way better than being sedentary," says Dr. Hedt.

And this doesn't just apply to our overall health. It matters for muscle recovery and healing, too.

That being said, Dr. Hedt emphasizes that safely exercising through pain requires first consulting a sports medicine doctor and getting help from a physical therapist.

"If the pain is due to adverse stress being placed on a muscle group or joint, easing it might require just a simple modification to your workout routine or correction to your technique," says Dr. Hedt. "Maybe we recommend some changes to the intensity of your regimen or small tweaks to how you perform certain movements."

A physical therapist can also help you find a pain-free range of motion where you can still be productive with an exercise without pushing yourself to that boundary of discomfort.

"With a more acute injury like a muscle strain or sprain, you'll need to avoid any significant stress through that muscle group," Dr. Hedt warns.

But since movement can aid healing, Dr. Hedt points out that a physical therapist can help gauge how you can still use that muscle group in way that won't exacerbate your injury or delay your recovery.

"It's just incredibly important to listen to your body," recommends Dr. Hedt. "If something feels truly painful or uncomfortable and seems to go beyond soreness, get it checked out. What you don't want is to push through the pain to the point that you turn something small into a chronic or more serious issue."

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