Training: does pain always mean gain?


The human body is designed to function and move pain free, so any sign may be a symptom of a potentially bigger problem. However, as anyone who has embarked upon a fitness regime will testify, muscle pain can be a healthy part of the process. No pain, no gain is one of the oldest training clichés in the book, so to get fit and minimise risk of injury it is vital to be able to tell the difference between different types of pain. Better body knowledge enables us to identify the moments when we should either push ourselves harder or take an important step back.

Key pain signals and what they may mean

The build-up of lactic acid and “the burn” after intense exercise. This type of pain is perfectly healthy. Lactic acid is a by-product of the anaerobic energy system, which is essentially the production of energy without the presence of oxygen. This usually occurs when performing short and intense bursts of exercise, for example weightlifting or sprinting. Neither a reason – nor an excuse – to back-off your training.

DOMS (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness). This is the dull ache one can feel the day after a tough training session, or from movements your body is not used to. Novices should expect it, but as fitness levels improve the incidence will fall as the body adapts through the Repeated Bout Effect of exercise.

Stiffness of a muscle or joint. This type of pain can be a symptom of a potentially bigger problem, being a mechanism whereby your body signals there is something wrong. A good example might be pain experienced after a day of sitting in a bad postural position. Such pain requires attention and action, usually at quite a granular level to establish and deal with the root of the problem, which will most likely lie in the areas of flexibility and mobility.

Shoulder pain case study: if, for example, your shoulders feel tight, or there is any impingement in your full range of movement, don’t just resort to painkillers or ibuprofen gels. While they might provide pain relief, their use may also end up masking the problem, risking further aggravation if it isn’t investigated further and addressed. Instead, some focus may be required on stretching out all the different angles of the muscle. While the pain or stiffness may be in the shoulder it might be linked to issues in the elbow, wrist or spine. Connectivity requires addressing all the aspects of the joint or muscle, looking both up and downstream from the point of aggravation. Stretching and forcing the muscle to relax will probably be required, then work on improving how the joint or muscle is bring worked, making sure the movement is efficient and that there is no compromise in any of your movements. In such circumstances it is advisable to seek professional advice.

Sharp stabbing pain. This is usually the sign of a strain or injury to a muscle, ligament or joint and is very painful. I experienced this when straining my lower back. The jolt is unmistakable and often poleaxing in agony. Accident, or inattention to form and movement is usually the problem. The best response is to first rest. Then, as in the shoulder pain case study, examine your flexibility and ensure you recover the full range of movement of each joint without impingement, while also making sure you are moving freely too.

Such sharp pain helps drill home the importance of the mantra: Form over Weight every time!

Fear of pain can often put people off training, but rather than dreading it, come to appreciate the difference between the various types. The right type of pain can help you achieve your physical potential and in time may actually become a welcome feeling of progress.

Note: always consult with a doctor or medical professional if you have any concern about unexpected or unexplainable pain or exactly what kind of pain you are experiencing.

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Alex is a registered Master Trainer and Nutritional Advisor with Level 4 qualifications in obesity and diabetes. He is also a strength specialist and a Ni Dan in Shotokan Karate.

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