Latest News from Rally Fitness

What is That Pain Telling You to Do?


Anyone who has made the commitment to exercise, lift weights, bike or practice yoga regularly has experienced some kind of pain. Whether it’s a minor, painful twinge on the morning after a light workout or the mind-numbing-think-you’re-going-to-die kind of pain that often occurs after a high-intensity CrossFit training session, there are good reasons to be aware and grow from this pain and soreness.

Most people embark on a fitness program to lose excess weight and build muscle mass. These are valid objectives and they can lead to muscle soreness and localized pain. Here’s why.

According to the physicians at the Mayo Clinic, the most common causes of muscle pain are tension, stress, overuse and minor injuries. This type of pain is usually localized, affecting just one or more muscles or parts of your body. Systemic muscle pain, which you feel throughout your body, is different. It's more often the result of an infection, an illness or a side effect of a medication.

Some common causes of muscle pain include:

  • Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS)
  • Medications, especially statins
  • Muscle cramps 
  • Muscle strain or rupture
  • Repetitive strain injuries
  • Rhabdomyolysis, a potentially life-threatening condition in which muscle fibers break down and enter your bloodstream — sometimes as a side effect of using statin drugs

The BuiltLean website notes that after a workout, the body repairs or replaces damaged muscle fibers through a cellular process where it fuses muscle fibers together to form new muscle protein strands or myofibrils. These repaired myofibrils increase in thickness and number to create muscle growth. This growth occurs whenever the rate of muscle protein synthesis is greater than the rate of muscle protein breakdown. This adaption, however, does not happen while you actually lift the weights. Instead, it occurs while you rest.

How do these muscles grow? So-called “satellite” cells act like stem cells for your muscles. When activated, they help to add more nuclei to the muscle cells and therefore contribute directly to the growth of myofibrils which are muscle cells. How are the activated? Stress. It’s a simple formula: Stress is cause and muscle growth is the affect.

In order to produce muscle growth, it is necessary to apply a load of stress greater than what one’s body or muscles had previously adapted too. This will inevitably lead to the bane of every fitness junkie – soreness.

BuiltLean notes that “If you’ve ever felt sore after a workout, you have experienced the localized muscle damage from working out. This local muscle damage causes a release of inflammatory molecules and immune system cells that activate satellite cells to jump into action.”


Is Pain a Big Red Stop Sign?

The kind of pain which is typically experienced by CrossFit participants is the delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and there is a difference of opinion about the “lessons to be learned” from this type of pain. According to Dr. Tony Webster, who works within the Pacific Institute for Sport Excellence at Camosun College in Victoria, Canada, and CrossFit athlete, “It is often taught by fitness experts, and even by many sport coaches, that muscle soreness is a sign of having “overdone” it, to be avoided where possible. It is also taught that lactic acid is the cause of soreness and that post-exercise static stretching will reduce or eliminate DOMS.”

“For many specialized athletes,” he notes, “muscle soreness tends to be an issue only after prolonged layoffs from their sport or after training sessions that have been unusually tough or substantially different from normal. In CrossFit, of course, there is no “normal,” just constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity: the perfect recipe, as it turns out, for ongoing muscle damage and soreness.”

Webster continues. “The main consequence of muscle damage that we all feel is DOMS. This is soreness that first appears about eight hours after the exercise bout and typically peaks about 24-48 hours later. It’s particularly noticeable when you get out of bed in the morning. We experience muscle tenderness, pain when we touch the muscle, and stiffness that causes pain when we move or stretch it. With some gentle movement the pain usually subsides, but after prolonged periods of little movement (sitting in front of a computer, for example) it rears its ugly head again. Usually the DOMS will have mostly disappeared after about four to five days, but can persist for longer in some cases, as most CrossFitters can tell you.”

(stock image of CrossFit training class with participants smiling or laughing)

Dr. Webster notes that the major reason why DOMS is a recurring theme in CrossFit is the emphasis on constantly varied movement patterns. “A specialized athlete will typically use similar muscle groups day in and day out. Thus, the specific muscles concerned will adapt and become quite resistant to muscle damage and DOMS. The CrossFit athlete is using a far greater diversity of muscle groups with constantly differing movement patterns. The result is that we will regularly be hitting muscles with unaccustomed exercises. Voila! DOMS is inevitable in this scenario.”

No Pain. No Gain

Training is all about increasing strength in muscles and decreasing the time of recovery from the work. This is referred to by experts on physiology at the “repeated bout effect.” It means that a similar bout of exercise will not have the same consequences as before. While it is complicated medical process, Webster notes that it is “a combination of increased structural strength of muscle fibers, metabolic adaptation and neuromuscular changes. A key point is that if we go back to being a couch potato all that good work and adaptation will disappear within a few weeks.”

Is the often intense pain and soreness that CrossFit trainers experience after a workout a sign that they are overdoing it? Perhaps, but maybe not.

Maybe this pain is a sign that the muscles are being broken down and being repaired, becoming even stronger that they were before. Professional guidance from qualified CrossFit trainers and a knowledge of one’s own body are two factors that will help in this determination.

In the meantime, there is much truth in the old adage: No pain. No gain.

What CrossFit exercises cause you the most pain and what do you do about it? Contact us and we’ll share your story with our readers.