How to know if your workout ‘hurts so good’ or just plain hurts


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Photo: Getty Images/Ceilie Arcurs

Once upon a time, my friend and I became regulars at a very sub-par spinning class simply because we had a massive crush on the instructor. (Yes, I know it’s cliché.) Nevertheless, I rolled out of bed on Sunday mornings to hear Teacher X yelling: “Get out of the saddle! Ass on fire!” for 45 minutes straight. His phrasing was aggressive and perhaps unnecessary. But it got me thinking: How do you distinguish a sweat sesh that “hurts so good” from one that just hurts, period?

Jo Gomez, ACSM, [solidcore]’s director of training, says you can differentiate good pain from bad pain by how sharp the sensation is. “A good pain will feel sore, tight, or stiff. It will may make it hard to complete another rep of an exercise or take effect the day after,” she says. “Bad pain that could be associated with injury is typically sharper and more intense.” While the first type can fast-track your gym gains, the second is your body waving a white flag. So if your reps feel more razor sharp than “difficult,” it’s time to rack your free weights and see your physician.

Another way to tell? Check the timeline of your discomfort, says Sarah Frick, fitness instructor and founder of The Works. “Soreness can be improved with stretching, appropriate rest and recovery. If there’s an actual injury, it’ll be persistent,” she tells me. While you’re monitoring your body to see which one you’re facing, press pause on your usual workout schedule.

Voilà! You now have the tools to tell the two varieties of pain apart! Before you run off to your workout though, Gomez has one final piece of wisdom. Even though good and bad pain are very, very different in sensation, the former can often lead to the latter. “A tight and sore muscle can easily turn to an injury if you don’t lay off it. Bad pain can often be felt in your joints, and can be a result of over- use or bad form,” she adds. In other words, smaller set-backs in your workouts are a good opportunity to physically check in with how you’re treating your body—before they start to impede your ability to make it to your exercise class of choice.

TL; DR: It’s okay for your peach to feel like it’s “on fire.” If that fire feels like a million tiny razor blades, however, abort mission.

Wondering you’re too sore to work out? Here’s how to tell. Plus, a workout so hard that you will have no doubt in your mind that, indeed—you are. 

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