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The Truth About Pain and Gain

No pain, no gain. You've probably heard the old saying, but is it true?

Yes. And no. Well, sort of.

Workout programs are based on the principle that to grow and progress, you must push your body harder than it normally works. Your body then responds by repairing muscle fibers and making them stronger and more resistant. Essentially you're tearing the muscle down when you're working out, and it's repairing itself while you rest. Some amount of muscle soreness is a normal result of this constant tearing down and rebuilding.

When you work out too hard, there are some obvious warning signs. You should not workout until you're so sore that walking, feeding yourself, or other normal daily activities are difficult or impossible without pain. When that happens, you've over-done it.

There are two primary types of muscle soreness you may experience.

The first and most common muscle aches people have typically occur immediately after exercising. These aches are generally caused by the inflammation your muscles experience when you workout hard. This is your body's way of saying, "stop NOW." Pain caused by inflammation usually doesn't last long. If you experience fatigue/pain during your workout, simply resting for two or three minutes will generally relieve it, and you can continue.

A more severe (and serious) pain is when muscles are sore one or two days after a workout. This is usually caused by something called Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS. DOMS is the result of microscopic tearing of the muscle fibers. Your body rushes immune cells in to repair the damage (mostly cells called macrophages and neutrophils). These immune cells produce bradykinins and prostaglandins, making pain receptors in your body more sensitive and mediate the inflammatory response. Since the levels of the immune cells reach their peak 24 to 48 hours after exercise, that's when you'll feel the pain the most.

DOMS is painful, but it is not a critical injury. It is your body's way of repairing the damage and telling you to be more careful in your future workouts.

To relieve the pain of DOMS, try some light stretching. Alternating heat and ice packs in 15-minute intervals can also bring relief. Massage reduces the pain for some.
Fortunately, in most cases, DOMS goes away within 48 hours.


CAUTION: If at any point you believe your pain is caused by something other than DOMS, you must contact your doctor or health care professional for help immediately.


Once the pain is gone, don't use it as an excuse to quit! Instead, you should re-do your workout to help you avoid DOMS.

Start slowly and work with gym employees or a personal trainer on a less strenuous program. As you grow and progress, do not expect to make gains of more than 10% from one week to the next.

Finally, follow these simple ideas to minimize post-workout pain.

Warm-up before every exercise session. Stretch lightly after your warm-up. Keep stretching during and after the workout, so your muscles stay limber, and always use proper form during every exercise to avoid injury. You will grow much faster if you don't have to heal from a muscle injury.


  1. Soreness during a workout is generally caused by muscle inflammation and usually goes away after a couple of minutes.

  2. Typical soreness 24 to 48 hours after a workout is called DOMS (Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness), and you may need to stretch or use ice to relieve the pain.

  3. Avoid getting sore by warming up, stretching and sticking to a realistic workout program.

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