Should you ‘push through pain’ when you exercise?

Arthritis and Osteoporosis Western Australia, 2017

Exercise is very important but when physical activity also comes with its fair share of aches and pains, how do you know when to push through the ‘good pain’ and when to stop?

Discomfort versus pain

Carly Ryan, Exercise Physiologist at Exercise and Sports Science Australia, says it is important to differentiate between ‘pain’ and ‘discomfort’ when exercising.

“Effort and discomfort go together and that’s what most people would call good pain – you generally expect to feel some level of discomfort,” Ms Ryan explains.

Dr Nathan Johnson, Associate Professor of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of Sydney, says while discomfort from feeling fatigue during exercise is normal, acute pain associated with injury or illness is not.

“If you are feeling joint or musculoskeletal pain, or anything associated with chest pain, then that is an indication to stop exercising immediately,” Dr Johnson says.

Knowing the difference

The easiest way to tell if you are feeling pain or discomfort is to stop the exercise.

“A little bit of a burn that goes away when your muscles stop working is often just a result of the exercise, so it’s fine to continue. But if it continues and you’re getting, say, a sharp pain in your knees or you feel a painful twinge in your hamstrings that affects your ability to keep moving, then it is most likely pain because you’ve overdone it, so you need to stop.” Ms Ryan says.

What is ‘good pain’?

Good pain (or discomfort) according to Sport and Exercise Physician Dr Andrew Jowett, reflects positive change in the body, and is part of the body’s adaptation to an activity or physical load.

“That injury stimulates muscle healing and hopefully replication of muscle fibres that ultimately leads to strengthening. So, that’s the good sort of pain we’re after out of any workout – to prevent injuries or to improve our performance.”

Lactic Acid

One of the most common forms of pain and discomfort we feel during strenuous exercise is a burning sensation in our lungs or muscles that goes away shortly after we cease the activity. This is caused by a build-up of lactic acid.

Lactic acid is a by-product of the process your body goes through when it needs to create energy more quickly than it normally does, such as when you exercise. The harder you work, the bigger the build-up of lactic acid. However, the fitter you are the better your body will be at clearing the lactic acid.

Preventing pain

Getting the level of exercise just right to prevent excessive discomfort might take a bit of trial and error. Therefore, it is fine to modify moves or do less than what you have been instructed to do if you are in a class. You will still get great benefits without doing the whole range of movements.

Reproduced from Arthritis and Osteoporosis Western Australia

How can we help? 


Always talk to your doctor and/or health professional before starting an exercise program. A physiotherapist or exercise physiologist can suggest safe exercises and make sure you are doing your exercises correctly.

Willis, O., 2017. Should you 'push through pain' when you exercise?. [online] ABC News. Available at: <> [Accessed 15 May 2017].