If you’ve ever sent a baby giraffe GIF after leg day or jetted off a “MY ARMS!” text after a hard lifting session, you’ve probably wondered: “How sore is too sore?”
The reality is, it can be tough to tell if your pain warrants extra attention or not, but there are always signs that point you in the right direction.
We’ve got the painful truth for you right here.
At its most distilled: soreness = good. And injury = bad!
To help you differentiate between normal, post-lift soreness and a level of discomfort that points toward injury, we reached out to physical therapist Grayson Wickham, DPT, CSCS, founder of the digital movement platform, Movement Vault.
He explains it this way: “When you lift, tiny tears get shorn into your muscle fibers. After the body gives these tears adequate TLC, these muscle fibers are stronger and more resilient than they were before that lift-a-thon. But in the meantime, those tears create inflammation in the body that you register as soreness.”
No biggie, this soreness is just a symptom that your body is putting in #Werk to make you stronger.
Injury, on the other hand, is not a normal side effect of lifting! It’s instead, a sign that something (usually, form) went awry.
There are three main ways to sort out if what you’re feeling is soreness or an injury:
1. Judge the ‘quality’ of your pain
Quick: How would you describe the sensation of the pain?
If you’re using words like “tender,” “tired,” or “tight,” you’re probably just sore.
However, if you’d describe the pain as “stabbing,” “burning,”or “sharp,” you could be injured, according to Wickham. “If your pain is associated with numbness or tingling, that’s also a sign of injury.”
Here’s where it gets a little tricky: Everyone has a different pain tolerance. As Wickham puts it, “Some people are super sensitive and always think they are injured, while other people put their body through hell and overlook signs of injury.”
No shade to the folks in the former category. After all, better safe than sorry!
“However, the folks in the latter category scan their bodies before and after lifting sessions for signs of change,” says Wickham.
“People with high pain tolerances, as well as those who may not be super in tune with their bodies, should try to notice new and different types of sensations. These can hint at a larger underlying problem,” he says.
2. Notice how long your sensation lasts
Is it possible for soreness to last longer than 1 or 2 days? Sure.
If you just got back into lifting and went absolutely balls to the wall, it’s possible to be sore for a full 7 days. “Soreness that lasts this long is especially likely if your nutrition, sleep, and stress management are crappy,” notes Wickham.
A tip for keeping soreness time down
Just getting into a weight lifting? Start off lifting less volume and weight than you probably want to.
“You might consider working with a professional who has experience helping people get back into strength training,” says Wickham. “Professionals will help you dose the intensity correctly so you aren’t sore for a week.”
But as a general rule, soreness shouldn’t last longer than 2 to 3 days, he says. Pains from injuries, on the other hand, usually don’t let up after a few sleeps.
“If you’re having discomfort in a joint or muscle that’s lasting longer than 7 to 10 days, you could be injured and should consult a healthcare provider.”
3. Listen to your gut
This one is just about knowing yourself and paying attention to your body’s signs — even if they’re faint.
“Generally, someone who lifts frequently is going to have a greater increase in body awareness due to having gone through workouts and bouts of soreness in the past,” says Wickham.
“They know how they usually feel after they go through a lift, and what type of soreness exists outside of their bandwidth of normal soreness.”
If that sounds like you, be honest with yourself: Does something feel like it’s not quite right? If the answer is “yes” (or even “maybe”), be on the safe side and get it checked out.
Hear a snap, crackle, or pop, and 9/10 pain? That could mean trouble. Stop what you’re doing ASAP and head to your local urgent care or ER.
Of course, you may not always be able to pinpoint every exact, fateful moment of injury — but if it’s significant enough, your body should tell you immediately.
So, even if you don’t know when you were injured, if you think you might be, Wickham recommends scheduling a visit with your primary physician or physical therapist.
If you are indeed injured, this expert will give you a diagnosis, as well as a game-plan for healing.
Oh, and in case you need to hear it: The right healthcare professional won’t tell you to stop lifting or working out altogether — they’ll help you understand how to work around that injury to give your body the right kind of healing space.
There *are* things you can do to speed the soreness process to conclusion.
“The more quality deep sleep you can get, the better,” says Wickham. “Deep sleep is the time when your body is producing the most growth hormone, which is a key player in muscle repair.”
He adds that you’ll also want to do things to lower cortisol levels. (Quick refresher: cortisol = the stress hormone)
The higher your cortisol levels are, the longer your recovery takes. “Meditation, breath work, visualization, and low intensity movement can all help lower cortisol levels,” Wickham notes.
Finally, eat nutritious food and eat enough of it! “Sometimes when people are trying to lose weight, they’ll undereat after training,” explains Wickham. This choice actually interferes with recovery and gains.
Not ideal if you’ve got lifting goals to achieve!
It can actually be tricky to tell right away if the pain you feel after lifting is normal or not. Listening to your body and observing how it reacts over time will be your biggest indicators of which is which.
Your body is wired to communicate with you when it’s changing and when it’s in trouble. Taking everything into account is part of the bigger gains picture.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.