Have you ever started a new workout program, only to find that your entire body was stiff as a board for days afterwards? Have you ever been told to avoid certain exercises because they are “bad for you”? Are you familiar with delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)?
Almost everyone will say they have felt ‘pain’ or ‘stiffness’ at the start of a new exercise routine. While it is completely normal to feel the physical effects in the days following a workout, it does beg an interesting question: What is the difference between ‘pain’ and ‘stiffness’?
The biggest problem with these terms is that they are used interchangeably, often as a badge of honour when it comes to exercise intensity and quality. Most people often assume that if they are sore, then they had a good workout so they should chase this feeling again. And again. And again.
In short, muscular soreness, tightness or “stiffness” is normal. It means that you might have learned a new exercise. Or maybe it’s the first time you used those muscles in a while. Maybe it’s both! The point is - having stiff hamstrings is fine if you haven’t done lunges in a while.
“Pain” is totally different. Pain isn’t normal, and it isn’t “just a part of working out.” Pain means there is an underlying issue, often unknown to the sufferer. Pain means that if you are moving well, you’re probably neglecting other pieces of the puzzle.
How your body responds to exercise, and more importantly, how you feel, is dependent on several factors, which we call the MAC Foundational Four:
1. Movement Patterns: Past injuries can create problems even if you aren’t fully aware of them. Problems with the ankles, feet and toes can affect the ability to squat and lunge properly. Lower back pain can cause problems with almost all movements, especially ones that involve bending. The main point is, pain can often be a sign of muscular weakness or inhibition. Safer alternatives are a much better option than removing a movement altogether.
2. Hydration/Nutrition: Getting sufficient food and water to compliment your increased activity levels is crucial when starting a new routine. The biggest mistake that people make is increasing movement while drastically decreasing the amount they eat. Gradual changes are okay, but major differences will affect the body’s ability to recover, which can actually play a huge role in how your body feels the next day.
3. Rest and Recovery: Prioritizing quantity and quality of rest - at least 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night, and allowing for sufficient rest between bouts of strength training. Insufficient rest will result in decreased performance and an increased risk of injury. It’s just not worth it - three times a week is all you need!
4. Physical/Mental Well-Being: Choosing positive forms of stress management (ex. Yoga, walking or meditation) over negative forms (ex. Drinking, smoking, emotional eating). There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a beer or a burger every now and then - believe me, I’m all for it! But just know that trying to make up for “guilty pleasures” is never a good idea. Your body will win every time, so if you want pizza, acknowledge it, enjoy it, and then move on!
Don’t make the mistake of drastically changing one habit, because it WILL impact all of the others at some point! Try not to think of a new health and fitness lifestyle in terms of ‘taking things away’ - instead, think of what you can ADD to your lifestyle.
Don’t cut out carbohydrates - look to add water, protein and fibre.
Don’t exercise excessively - commit to exercise a couple times per week, and think of ways to add enjoyable movement into your routine.
Don’t give up alcohol - just don’t let it become your primary way of “blowing off steam.”
If you are moving well, challenging yourself accordingly and allowing for sufficient rest and recovery, muscular pain should be a rarity! If it isn’t, it just means your body is trying to tell you something - you just need to learn how to listen!