If you have trained for any extended period of time, you have likely at times experienced some sort of discomfort while or after performing a movement. This sensation can cause concern, especially if you are not sure what it means. Are your muscles fatiguing? Are you doing something wrong? Are you hurting yourself? When this happens, it is important to differentiate whether what you are experiencing is soreness or actual pain. There are two main reasons for this. First, safety is our top priority. We do not want you to do something that will cause you to become injured. However, we also do not want you to avoid movements that will strengthen you and have a large potential to make you more resilient to pain or injury in the future.
By soreness, we are referring to the muscle burn (or fatigue) that you experience while exercising, or the general stiffness and achiness that comes a day or two after a training session. Pain is much more sharp and distinct, and limits your body’s ability to work through full range of motion. Confusion of these two sensations often occurs in connection with the low back, which is what we will use as an example, but these principles apply to any area of the body.
Oftentimes, an individual will perform some variation of the hinge, such as a deadlift or kettlebell swing, and begin to experience lower back fatigue. The lower back being one of the most common sites for injury, they may begin to worry they are hurt or doing something wrong. However, like any other part of the body, muscle burn is par for the course even with proper technique. If you are experiencing pain (sharp and distinct; limits range of motion), then it would be appropriate to reduce load or modify as needed in order to manage your symptoms.
Exercises like the deadlift are excellent tools for developing strength and preventing the likelihood of injury in the future when performed with proper technique and appropriate loading. It is important to realize that, for the most part, there are no “bad” exercises, just inappropriate times during which to implement a given exercise depending on an individual’s current physical abilities and symptoms. Learning the difference between pain and soreness will go a long way in keeping you on the path to achieving your fitness goals while avoiding injury.