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Good Pain or Bad Pain? Decoding Post-Training Stiffness

Updated: 2 days ago

Feeling stiff after a workout is a good sign that you've hit the target muscles during your workout and that you've done enough to stimulate a response from the body. As in, you've worked hard enough that your body and brain now knows it needs to adapt and get better for next time. Great work!


But, it's important to know and understand what is a good level of stiffness, when does the stiffness become counterproductive, and what is good vs bad pain. We discuss all in this article.


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If you’ve ever started on a new workout routine/programme or pushed yourself in a training session, you’re probably familiar with the feeling of stiff muscles the next day.


This post-workout stiffness is called DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) and is a common experience for beginners, fitness enthusiasts and athletes alike.


But is it actually good to be stiff after training? In this article we'll explore that question and help you understand what it means for you and your training.


Understanding Muscle Soreness

DOMS typically sets in 12 to 24 hours after exercise and will usually peak at 24 - 72 hours post-workout, although depending on how hard you've trained it can sometimes last as long as a week (and also come on after a few hours!).


It manifests as a feeling of stiffness and tenderness and you will also likely notice a decrease in strength, power, mobility and flexibility too. This soreness is a result of very tiny tears in the muscle fibres caused by intense or unfamiliar exercise. Those muscle fibres then inflame. The inflammation is both a good and bad thing - on the good side it lets the brain know that you've worked out and to flood the area with resources to help you build and repair and grow, but on the bad side it does lead to the area becoming tender and stiff.


These microtears are especially common during activities that involve eccentric contractions (which is essentially the lengthening phase of any exercise e.g. the downward part of a bicep curl or a press up). The tears signal to the brain to begin the inflammatory response, which in turn stimulates the repair and growth processes in your muscles. Whilst this sounds alarming, it’s actually a natural and necessary part of building stronger, more resilient muscles. This is completely normal.


Good pain vs bad pain - knowing the difference
Good Pain or Bad Pain - knowing is critical to getting results

Is Muscle Stiffness a Sign of a Good Workout?

Feeling sore after a workout is an indicator that you’ve challenged your muscles and created the right conditions for them to adapt and grow. So well done! You had a successful workout. 


However, it’s important to recognize that soreness is not the only measure of an effective workout. Here are a few key points to consider:


1. Soreness Isn’t the Only Indicator of Progress

While DOMS can indicate that you’ve pushed your muscles, it’s not the only sign of progress. Improvements in strength, endurance, flexibility, technique and overall fitness are better long-term indicators. You can have a highly effective workout without experiencing significant soreness, especially as your body begins to adapt to your routine.


2. Adaptation and Reduced Soreness

As your body gets used to a particular type of exercise, you’ll likely experience less soreness over time. This doesn’t mean your workouts are necessarily becoming less effective; rather, it indicates that your muscles are adapting and becoming more efficient at handling the stress. To continue making progress, it’s important to vary your workouts and introduce new challenges.


3. Too Much Soreness Can Be Counterproductive

While some muscle soreness is normal, excessive stiffness can hinder your ability to perform daily activities and may discourage you from continuing your fitness routine. It can also increase the risk of injury if you push through severe pain. It’s essential to listen to your body and allow adequate recovery time between intense workouts. High amounts of soreness and stiffness that lasts throughout the week will also make your programme less effective, as you won't be able to train at a high intensity or as frequently - which will certainly hinder results.


4. Balancing Intensity and Recovery

Your progress in training is split between between appropriately intense training and proper recovery. Ensuring you get enough rest, sleep, and nutrition is crucial for muscle repair and growth. Overtraining without adequate recovery can lead to soreness and even injury.


Tips to Manage and Prevent Excessive Soreness

While some level of stiffness can be inevitable, there are strategies to manage and minimise excessive soreness:

  • Gradual Progression: Increase the intensity and volume of your workouts gradually to allow your muscles to adapt.

  • Proper Warm-Up: Incorporate dynamic warm-up exercises before training and get your body to a higher temperature before beginning a workout.

  • Hydration and Nutrition: Staying hydrated and consuming a balanced diet rich in protein and essential nutrients supports muscle repair.

  • Active Recovery: Light activities such as walking, swimming, or yoga can promote blood flow and reduce stiffness. Pro tip - a small pump in to the muscles that are feeling stiff can be a huge help to reducing soreness. So doing a light resistance workout to get the blood flowing and muscles warm will go a long way towards recovery

  • Rest and Sleep: Ensure you get enough rest and quality sleep to facilitate muscle recovery.


Good Pain or Bad Pain: What to Look Out For

Good "Pain" Indicators

When we say pain - it's not really pain. We're looking for:

  • Tenderness and stiffness - Slightly tender to the touch but you can still move your body through a full (or almost full) range of motion

  • Lasts for 1-4 days - the tenderness and stiffness starts to gradually reduce until fully gone over a period of 1 to 4 days and then you're back to normal, as though nothing had ever happened

  • It's in the target muscles - If you trained your chest and back, and you feel tender in the chest and back - perfect! That may sound obvious, but as we highlight below - feeling things in places that you weren't trying to train is in indicator that something may be wrong - certainly with your technique but you might have hurt yourself also.


Bad Pain Indicators

If you're feeling any of the following then you should either get it checked or delay restarting training until fully recovered:

  • Sharp, shooting pains - these can happen all over the body but common areas can be in the neck, lower back, calfs, hamstrings and shoulders. This is much different to feeling tender and maybe a sign that you've overreached in terms of your training. These are the sort of pains that stop you in your tracks as you go to move, as opposed to tenderness or stiffness which slow you down a bit

  • It's only on one side - If there's pain on one side of your body and not the other then you know you might of over strained or over exerted a muscle or joint and this is most certainly bad pain vs good pain

  • Deep, persistent aches - when we say deep we mean not at skin level or just below. If you can feel pain or dull aches deep within a joint then you might have overdone it

  • Struggling to get range of motion back after 4-5 days - if you've had almost a week of recovery but you're still finding that you're struggling to move freely then you've most likely trained too hard and need to think about dropping the intensity back

  • Hurting in the wrong places - If you were doing a leg session and your neck is feeling really sore, stiff, painful then you know that something has likely gone wrong and may need some more rest or to be seen by someone appropriate e.g. physio.

  • Big reduction in Range of Motion - If you're suddenly finding that you can't move your body freely e.g. not being able to look left or right, then you may have pushed too hard and hurt yourself


Good pain vs bad pain - understanding the difference is crucial to getting results

Conclusion

In short, feeling sore after a workout is a normal part of getting stronger and can mean you’ve worked the target muscles. But don’t rely only on soreness alone to judge your progress and make sure that you can understand when certain things that you're feeling are not good for you.


Balance intense workouts with good recovery, nutrition, and listening to your body to achieve long-term fitness goals without risking injury. It’s okay to feel a little sore after a tough workout, but remember that recovery and moderation are key to staying healthy and fit.


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