Everyone experiences muscle pain at one point or another. It’s just part of the human condition. Whether it’s a severe strain or just everyday tightness, muscle complications can sneak up and quickly put you out of commission. Some of this discomfort is inevitable, but a huge chunk of it can be prevented. If you want to wave goodbye to muscle pain for good, there are a few essential habits you need to master.
Today we’ll look at 3 categories of muscle pain: sprains, overuse complications, and excessive tightness. While there is some overlap between these injuries, each one has distinct causes that many of us overlook. Whether you’re an avid weight lifter or as sedentary as they come, this guide will be sure to improve your muscular health and pain outcomes!
How To Keep Your Muscles Happy & Healthy
Quick note: if you’re unsure what type of muscle injury you are suffering from, please don’t hesitate to visit your doctor or physiotherapist. The quicker you can find the root of the problem, the faster you can adhere to relevant, evidence-based strategies for recovery. When it comes to your health, it’s never worth procrastinating!
1) Muscle Tear Prevention
There are 3 main ways to tear a muscle. Firstly, you can have a traumatic accident (getting hit in a sports game, biking accident, etc…) that is completely out of your control. Secondly, you can suffer from a fatigue-related sprain. It’s important to realize that just like the rest of your body, the nervous system fatigues as you near the end of a training session or game. When it does begin to fade, the coordination of your movements can get slightly sloppier, potentially leading to poor contractions and subsequent strains.
To avoid strains from fatigue, it’s important to do 2 things. You must keep your head in the moment, and you have to be strategic with how you’re structuring your activity in the gym. If you’re pushing too ridiculously hard, you can also suffer from mental fatigue which can dampen your decision-making and put you in trouble. This is relevant for both sports and fitness. In these moments, do your absolute best to always be mindful of where you’re at, and take a pause or rest if need be.
For tip 2, be wise with how you're ordering your workouts. Always do your more complex and dangerous training (plyometrics, heavy Olympic lifts, etc…) near the beginning of the session to protect yourself from potential fatigue-related injuries.
Finally, you may receive a muscle strain because of a lack of warm-up. If you aren’t warming up, you’re not activating the nervous system fully. As mentioned above, this can lead to poor brain calculations which can cause uncoordinated contractions. Additionally, warm-ups are a key component to improving your proprioception (body awareness) for the session. If you leave them out, you may also suffer from an injury due to not being fully alert. If you want a guide for mastering the warm-up phase, I have you covered here.
2) Overuse Injury Prevention
This comes down to 2 factors… either doing too much work in one individual session, or failing to implement proper rest periods over time. To avoid the first cause, simply be smart when you’re training. If you haven’t done something before, ensure it’s not out of reach for your fitness, abilities, and skills. An easy guideline to follow is to never jump up more than 10% in intensity, load, or overall volume between 2 sessions or if you’re training in weekly cycles, 2 weeks of training. If you’re unsure what you’re capable of in your respected sport or activity, seeking out a qualified personal trainer may be exactly what you need. They can help build a well-progressed plan that can maintain your gains without the risk of injury.
To avoid long-term overuse injuries, you must prioritize rest over everything. For more intense training sessions, whether in sport or fitness, you should leave a minimum of 48 hours between workouts. For rare cases, such as long-distance or ‘peak performance’ events, the recovery will be longer (days — weeks). Most elite athletes have a yearly training plan with various cycles to overcome challenges with balancing huge training volumes and injury risk. To simplify it for the average joe, just focus on never bumping up your intensity by more than 10% per session, and give yourself at least 2 days between your harder workouts. Hint: getting enough food, water, and sleep never hurt anyone either.
If you feel like you’re on the edge of an overuse injury, check in with how you’re feeling. If you notice you have persistent tightness in an area that cannot be relieved by anything, it’s likely a sign that you’re training too much. To avoid getting yourself in this situation, train with a diary and keep track of your overall volume and intensity. This will help you stay on track with progressions and keep you out of trouble.
3) Everyday Tightness Prevention
If you’re struggling with persistent tightness that you think is not related to sports or training, here are some simple tips for you. First off, take a scan of what activities you’re doing on a daily basis, and examine whether anything is putting your muscles or joints in a vulnerable spot. Here are some common red flags:
sitting all day at work
having a poor ergonomic set-up at your desk
working a physical job that’s beyond your current fitness level
failing to achieve proper nutrition and hydration throughout the day
experiencing overwhelming stress, anxiety, or depression (yes, this is absolutely tied to your muscular health!)
the list goes on…
If you adjust your occupation and/or lifestyle and you’re still struggling with pain and tightness, it’s probably time to go see a health professional. Someone like a physio can give you another set of eyes and potentially find a root cause that you were not able to uncover. From there you can begin implementing the relevant exercises and lifestyle shifts you need to get relief.
Whether you can find the cause of your tightness or not, light-to-moderate physical activity will almost always better your situation. Performing activities like walking, hiking, and swimming can help to engage the musculoskeletal and nervous system, increase blood flow, and decrease pain. Don’t overlook the impact of breaking up sedentary periods with simple movement to get you back to feeling like yourself!
Muscle injuries come in many shapes and sizes. Some are inevitable due to the unpredictability of life, but many are completely under our control. If you want to improve your fitness and protect your muscular health, take the habits above very seriously. You too can avoid strains, tightness, and overuse injuries if you simply listen to your body and give it the stimuli and rest it needs. Committing to this has the power to give you pain relief as you’ve never felt before, all while avoiding the drug store!
You got this!