You might be familiar with the phrase, “feel the burn”. It’s true that when we exercise, some amount of muscle soreness is a sign that we’re making progress. On the other hand, pain can be your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong. Since the last thing you want to do is cause a serious injury to yourself during exercise, it’s important to learn how to recognize the difference between good pain and bad pain.

You’re experiencing normal muscle soreness if…

You wake up the day after a workout feeling a little bit achy or tired.

Your muscles feel tight, but not actually painful.

The pain is mild, and lasts for less than 48 hours.

The pain is centered in the areas you worked. For example, you did sit-ups and your abs are sore, or you went running and your legs are achy.

You might have injured yourself if…

The pain is not focused in a spot you actually worked. If you performed sit-ups and now your lower back is sore, that’s a sign that you used incorrect form and need to correct it.

The pain is sharp and localized in a very small area. You might have torn a muscle.

You feel a sudden sharp pain while you’re exercising. You may have pulled a muscle. This is likely to be the case if the pain persists for more than a few days, and if even gentle movements elicit a grimace of pain.

You feel pain in your joints. It’s normal to feel soreness in your muscles after working out. But pain in your joints, either during or after the workout, means that your joints are absorbing too much force from your movements. You may be lifting too much weight or doing more repetitions than your body can currently handle.

The pain gets worse. With normal muscle soreness, the pain will start off at a mild to moderate level, but gradually get better over the next day or so. If the pain continues to get worse, stop exercising and make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.

To avoid injury in the future, make sure you properly warm up before exercise. Walk or jog slowly for a few minutes before attempting more strenuous activities, because warm muscles respond better to strain. When you’re finished working out, stretch gently to relieve tension, and remember to drink plenty of water and get adequate rest between exercise sessions.