A woman wearing pink workout shorts pressing her hands against her lower back.

How to tell the difference between soreness and injury


You know you’ve started a new workout routine when the prospect of walking up or down a set of stairs fills you with fear! Because your body takes time to adjust to a new routine, it is highly likely that your muscles will be achy and just a little angry when you first get started – it’s a totally natural part of the process.

This is DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness. DOMS happens because we’re making microscopic tears in our muscles during a workout (especially strength training) and our body is jumping into repair mode, fixing the tears and building the strength of the muscles at the same time.

Sounds ouchy, right? The good news is, DOMS is a sign that your muscles have been working hard and are starting to benefit. And as you continue to train and grow stronger, the soreness will lessen. But if you’re new to exercise, how can you tell the difference between good DOMS and bad soreness that may represent an injury?

We asked our women's health physiotherapist, Phoebe Armfield.

What does DOMS feel like?

You won’t feel DOMS at the time of your workout, but the next day (or even the day after). “DOMS is often described as a dull burning sensation in the muscles that you feel when you use that area of the body,” Phoebe says. So the day after a big lower-body day with Emily, you may feel it when you’re walking down the stairs or sitting down.

“Generally the whole muscle feels sore but movement is still possible. It may also be tender to touch. But it usually only lasts 24–72 hours, and continuing to move will help.”

Emily Skye doing high knees to warm up before working out.

Want to avoid an injury? Don’t skip your warm-ups!

What does an injury feel like?

How do you know if what you’re feeling is soreness that will fade or an injury that needs attention? “You’re likely to feel instant pain at the time of an injury unless it’s minor – things like minor strains and sprains may only become noticeable within 24 hours. It can take a while for the inflammation process to kick in, which causes swelling at the site of the injury,” Phoebe explains.

So what will you feel? “Usually the pain is localised and doesn’t involve the whole muscle or ligament,” Phoebe says. “You may feel or hear a pop, crack or tear. You may not be able to move the affected area. Bruising or bleeding may be present. And you may notice swelling instantly for fractures or severe strains and sprains.”

How can I tell if it’s serious?

We asked Phoebe to give us some quick signs to look out for when you’re training. It’s most likely an injury if:

  • If you hear a pop, crack or tear.

  • If there is localised pain not involving the whole muscle.

  • If the affected area is red or hot.

If swelling or bruising appears immediately, it is an injury.

When should I stop working out?

Phoebe recommends stopping a workout immediately if you feel pain in your head, neck, back or abdomen. “Pain in these areas can be particularly serious due to the important cargo they contain.”

What do I do if i’m injured?

If exercise is causing you pain that fits any of the descriptions above, it’s important that you seek medical advice.

You might be able to keep training if you’re injured – but the type of training you should do depends on the injury. For example, you don’t want to be lifting weights overhead if you’ve injured your shoulder, but you may still be able to perform squats with no problem.

“You may find you use the affected area in unexpected exercises, so it’s important to modify the movement to be pain-free if an injury is present,” says Phoebe. Because you really need to be aware if a movement is hurting you, she adds that “taking a painkiller before training is not recommended!”

Exercise can also assist recovery from certain injuries in some instances – things like chronic back pain can benefit from regular movement. “All the research into back pain suggests that general full-body exercise is effective in managing the pain and assists the healing process.”

However, it’s important to consult a medical professional, such as your doctor or a licensed physical therapist, before attempting to treat pain with exercise.

If you have a pre-existing injury or think you may have injured yourself during exercise, seek the advice of a medical professional.

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