Exercise safety: Why “no pain, no gain” can lead to injury

July 5, 2022 in Healthy Living  •  By Miles Varn, MD
exercise safety

If you think that you have to really suffer to benefit from a workout, you may be setting yourself up for injuries. The mantra, “no pain, no gain,” has contributed to the belief that experiencing pain during exercise means you’re getting a better workout. However, pain is the brain’s way of signaling that you should be cautious. That’s not to say your workouts should be easy. The key to exercise safety is learning to distinguish between discomfort and pain.

Discomfort that occurs in the muscles you are working is usually a normal response caused by muscle fatigue, especially if you’re new to exercise, starting a new type of exercise, or gradually increasing the number of repetitions you’re doing or how much weight you’re using.  In contrast, pain often starts suddenly and is intense and localized or continues for several days, for example a sharp pain in the knee rather than a general feeling of muscle soreness during a run or a week of ankle pain after a HIIT workout.

Pushing through pain increases the risk of injury, so if you experience pain during exercise, the safest choice is to stop that activity. Continuing to work out while experiencing pain or when you’re injured can alter normal movement patterns, leading to additional injuries. For example, if you’ve injured your shoulder while lifting weights and continue to lift, you may compensate for the pain by altering your posture while working out or holding the weights incorrectly, which can lead to back, elbow, and wrist injuries.

Strategies for a safer exercise routine

These steps are the foundation of exercise safety and can help you build a safer exercise routine and lower your risk of injuries:

  • Check in with your doctor: If you’re new to exercise, planning to take on more vigorous workouts, or are living with a chronic health issue like heart disease, diabetes, or asthma, talk with your doctor before starting your new exercise routine. And remember that the doctor’s ok to work out isn’t a blanket approval with no end date. If you get injured or experience increased symptoms of your health condition, talk with your doctor to ensure your exercise routine is still safe for you. And talk about your activity plan with your doctor at your checkup each year.
  • Don’t jump right into vigorous exercise: There are two parts to this advice. First, don’t try to run a mile at your fastest speed or go to an advanced hot yoga class when you’re just starting to work out or have taken a break from working out. Build the intensity and duration of your exercise gradually. Second, make warming up part of every workout to increase your heart rate and blood flow to the muscles gradually. Cooling down after a workout is also important. Doing slower, less intense movements at the end of a workout helps lower your heart rate and body temperature.
  • Reduce the risk of overuse injuries: Doing the same exercises every day can put stress on muscles and joints, increasing the risk of overuse injuries. Instead, create a balanced workout plan that includes, cardio, strength training, flexibility, and balance exercises.
  • Check your technique: Doing exercises or using equipment incorrectly is another common cause of injury. Learn what the proper form is for the exercises you’re doing and check your form during every workout. You may need to go more slowly to ensure correct form. Working with a trainer is another option to help make sure your form is correct.
  • Use the right equipment: This includes safety equipment like helmets and knee and wrist pads as well as footwear and clothing. Make sure the equipment fits properly, is designed for the activities you’re participating in, and is in good condition.
  • Choose healthy habits: Exercise safety isn’t just about how you work out, it’s also about what you do to help your body recover and get stronger. Getting enough good quality sleep each night, drinking enough water to remain hydrated while working out, and choosing nutrient dense foods are essential parts of your body’s ability to regenerate and recover after exercise.