Defining the difference between “good pain” and “bad pain” with exercise.

Is “no pain, no gain” a good approach to exercise? When experiencing discomfort during exercise, there is a difference between muscle soreness and pain. Most people believe that muscle soreness is due to a buildup of lactic acid within the muscles but it actually develops from the repair process in response to tiny muscle fiber breakdown, or small tears, during a workout1. Soreness often has a delayed effect, occurring 12-24 hours after exercise has been performed and may produce greatest pain between 24-72 hours later, this delayed reaction is known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) and is a normal response to exercise1. The severity of soreness depends on the types of forces placed on the muscle, such as forces that lengthen the muscle known as eccentric actions1. The greater the intensity of the workout, the greater the muscle fiber breakdown, and the greater chance you’ll have developing sore muscles after your workout. It is challenging to avoid soreness especially when starting a new exercise program, but pain does not need to be present to make gains.

Pain during exercise may indicate a need to reduce or refrain from an activity, as it signals a problem and may result in overuse injuries. Usually a sharp or sudden pain with exercise could mean injury. Forcing through pain can actually have long-term negative outcomes to our body and fitness level2.

When deciding to get fit or when starting a new fitness program, start slow. You want to avoid excessive soreness and progressively overload the body in a safe manner by controlling variables such as volume, intensity, or mode of activity. If pain persists, seek attention from a physical therapist or other medical professional.
Soreness vs. Pain: How to Tell the Difference3
Muscle Soreness
Type of discomfort
Tender when touching muscles, tired or burning feeling while exercising, minimal dull, tight and achy feeling at rest Ache, sharp pain at rest or when exercising
During exercise or 24-72 hours after activity During exercise or within 24 hours of activity
2-3 days May linger if not addressed
Muscles Muscles or joints
Improves with
Stretching, following movement Ice, rest
Worsens with
Sitting still Continued activity
Appropriate action
Resume offending activity once soreness subsides Consult with medical professional if pain is extreme or lasts >1-2 weeks
  1. ACSM Information On…Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). American College of Sports Medicine Web site. Published 2011. Accessed February 20, 2015
  2. Nadelen MD. Basic Injury Prevention Concepts. ACSM Fit Society Page. 2012.
  3. Soreness vs. Pain: What’s the Difference? American Physical Therapy Association Move Forward Web site. Published 2015. Accessed February 20, 2015.