There is an unfortunate saying that has floated through the fitness community for many years: no pain, no gain.

While it is true that a certain amount of discomfort is to be expected as you work long-dormant muscle groups, the idea that you have to be in pain to make progress is a dangerous one. It is important to be able to distinguish between soreness, a feeling that can be positive, and pain. Here’s how.

When exercising, everyone has a different activity threshold. This is the point when the body begins to push past its limitations and gains in fitness and strength can be realized. Once that threshold is passed, soreness may result. There are a few distinguishing features to soreness.

Soreness follows activity

Soreness does not occur if a muscle is not activated past its activity threshold. This is different from pain, which can occur without activity. It can have an onset from 24 to 72 hours after exercise. Any sensation in the muscles past that period of time is referred to as delayed muscular onset soreness (DOMS).

Soreness is generally seated in the muscles

While pain can occur in joints and ligaments, soreness is a feature of the muscles.

Soreness is a particular type of sensation

Soreness can translate into tenderness when muscles are touched, or a tired, burning feeling in the muscles while exercising. Occasionally muscles may feel tight and achy when not active. Pain is generally a sharp and stabbing feeling not dependent on touch or movement (though these may also increase pain).

Soreness may be treated with activity

Just as activity causes soreness, activity can help relieve it. Light stretching or movement can help to release tension in the muscles and ease the sensation. Pain may not be relieved with movement, which may, in fact, cause an increase in pain levels.

The most important things to consider are onset and location when determining if what you are experiencing is pain or sore muscles, and it is important to make the distinction. Pain can be the body’s way of telling you that there is a much deeper injury that needs to be treated. Sharp, stabbing pain should never be ignored or dismissed, especially if it comes out of nowhere or occurs during regular activity.

Soreness, on the other hand, is the body’s normal response to activity. When we exercise past our activity threshold, the muscles incur small tears. This causes inflammation, which causes soreness. When these small tears heal during the resting period following activity, the muscles are stronger and better able to handle increased activity. This is why rest between workouts is crucial. Light activity (e.g., walking, stretching) can help the healing process by working through the inflammation.

This is not to say that muscle soreness is a requirement for a good workout. Monica Vazquez, NASM certified personal trainer believes that working out until you are sore can actually encourage you to push yourself too far, saying:

“It doesn’t mean that you’re not getting as good of a workout because you’re not [very sore] the next day. You should feel [soreness] 24 hours to three days after the activity. If, after three days, you try to do the same exercise and you cannot because you go immediately to muscle failure, you’ve done too much.”

Even the most fit people can experience soreness after a workout. It’s a complex mixture of genetic factors that lead to the perception of pain, along with level of fitness. As you get more fit, you may feel less soreness, but in order to continue to gain strength and fitness it is important to cross train and mix up workouts.

Treating soreness

So how can you treat soreness, and when is it imperative to see a doctor?

Knowing that this may be a factor post-workout, there are a few things you can do to plan ahead.

  • Drink plenty of water: Water helps hydrate muscles, preventing cramps that can cause more soreness after a workout.
  • Schedule a massage: Massage helps relax muscles, alleviating tension and helping muscle fibers to heal.
  • Use foam rollers: Stiff foam rollers can help work through tight, sore muscles both pre- and post-workout.
  • Take an Epsom-salts bath: Epsom salts contain magnesium, a key component in the function of over 300 different processes in the body. Magnesium also helps alleviate inflammation and promotes better sleep, a key component in the recovery period.

There are some warning signs for soreness that is not normal. If soreness persists after three days without significant decline in severity and after applying the above treatments, it may be time to give your doctor a call. If your limbs swell or your urine becomes dark in color, see your doctor immediately.

And really, if you are new to exercise or just getting back into a workout routine and feel any concern about the level of soreness or pain after a workout, it never hurts to give your doctor a call to check in. They may want to see you, or they may recommend a course of action to follow at home for a period of time. It is important to check in if you have any concerns, especially if you are being treated for any type of chronic illness or condition.

Take a moment to consider these common mistakes many beginners make when working out, then tell us: what does your workout routine look like?


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