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How to Judge the Seriousness of Pain During a Workout

January 15, 2013 | Z Altug

Athlete Grimace

The rising popularity of HIIT, TUT and high-intensity plyometric training has led many athletes to push themselves past unsafe limits in the gym and on the field. Athletes are familiar with the "no pain, no gain" philosophy, but post-workout muscle soreness or intra-workout muscle "burn" are not the same as sharp and shooting pain. (See Willis McGahee on Training Through Pain.) Not all pain is the same. If you want to stay healthy to train and compete another day, never ignore the warning signals your body is sending.

Although knowing when your body has hit its limits sounds simple, many athletes tend to ignore the symptoms. If you experience any of the following before, during or after a workout, you should immediately see your athletic trainer:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Severe neck or back pain
  • Sharp pain in a muscle or joint
  • Shooting pain in an arm or leg
  • Pain that awakens you during sleep
  • Pain that increases over time and doesn't diminish with rest
  • Severe muscle ache
  • Headache
  • Severe body fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea
  • Blurry vision (or other visual disturbance)
  • Difficulty with speech
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Prolonged numbness
  • Fever
  • Disorientation
  • Arm or leg weakness
  • Joint swelling
  • Pain associated with clicking, popping, or snapping in a joint
  • Severe muscle cramping
  • Post-exercise chills
  • Gradual loss of range of motion in a joint

Athletes should also be alert to pain during the any of the following scenarios. (Read Glenn Dorsey and Early Doucet on Playing Through Injuries.) If you experience pain or discomfort, take a moment to reflect on whether it is serious enough to take you away from workouts and competition before continuing:

  • New Use: doing an activity or exercise you are not accustomed to
  • Misuse: doing an activity or exercise in an awkward position, such as lifting weights improperly
  • Overuse: doing an activity or exercise for too long, too strenuously, or beyond your body's ability to adapt
  • Disuse: when a particular area of your body becomes a weak link and is predisposed to injury because it has not been exercised for a long period
  • Deconditioning: when a previously fit individual tries to train at the same intensity, or work out like he or she did when he/she was in great shape
  • Accidents: e.g., stepping into a hole on the soccer field or twisting an ankle on the basketball court
  • Collisions: when players run into each other when playing a variety of sports, like football or hockey
  • Excess Force: e.g., when a skier goes down a hill that is too steep for his/her skill level
  • Improper Training: when an individual uses training techniques too advanced for his/her skill level
  • Muscular Imbalances: ignoring tight and/or weak muscles in one area while training other areas excessively—e.g., exercising your chest and ignoring your back
  • Uncontrolled Stress: stress that is not controlled may lead to sleep loss, poor dietary habits or excess strain on the body's immune system, ultimately causing an injury and pain
  • Training Abuse: doing an activity without regard to proper posture, proper body mechanics, or form
  • Inadequate Recovery or Rehabilitation: not allowing the body to rest and recover from workouts can lead to pain; not taking care of minor and chronic injuries may lead to pain and dysfunction
  • Lifestyle Abuse: Eating an unhealthy diet, smoking, abusing alcohol, or abusing drugs can affect the body's ability to recover and may lead to pain

Remember: "no pain, no gain" is out and "train without pain" is in.


Z Altug
- Z Altug, PT, MS, CSCS, NSCA-PT, is a licensed physical therapist and athletic performance specialist out of Los Angeles. He co-authored the 2012 Healthy Lifestyle...
Z Altug
- Z Altug, PT, MS, CSCS, NSCA-PT, is a licensed physical therapist and athletic performance specialist out of Los Angeles. He co-authored the 2012 Healthy Lifestyle...
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