“That hurts!” We’ve likely all heard our clients express some experience of pain or discomfort. They might say an exercise hurts, or that it is painful, or perhaps complain about pain post-workout. Naturally, we don’t want our clients to hurt themselves. Oftentimes, our clients do not understand how to communicate the difference between pain and discomfort. While “no pain, no gain” is a fitness phrase that needs to go, working hard and building strength is not always comfortable. As trainers, we have the ability to improve our communication with clients so that we can better understand when there is potential for injury, and when our clients are simply being challenged.

The difference between pain and discomfort

Discomfort, by definition, can be the experience of something annoying or feeling uneasy. It is considered a slight, or mild “pain”. Pain, however, when interpreted as a signal of something being wrong, is generally more pronounced, defined by suffering, distress, and injury or illness.

Discomfort is natural when starting and maintaining an exercise program. Pain, however, is usually a signal from the nervous system that something is wrong in an effort of the body to protect itself from further injury.

Pain is often localized, felt intensely, and sometimes suddenly, depending on the source. It might be coupled with swelling or bruising and may not improve when continuing or stopping exercise. Discomfort can feel like a general challenge, like burning in the muscles, fatigue, or heaviness.

Similarly, delayed onset muscle soreness can be perceived as pain at times. In this case, it can be helpful to understand the difference between good sore and bad sore. Bad sore might be painful, while a good sore is uncomfortable.

As trainers, we want to challenge our clients to help them grow. Depending on their goals, we want to help them build strength, which means they will likely be uncomfortable at times. But we never want our clients to push through pain.


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Communicating well

Knowing that we shouldn’t push through pain, when our clients claim something hurts or is painful, we will want to clarify what that means to them. We’ll also want to consider their injury history and their abilities, factoring the exercise they’re currently doing as well as their form.

A part of differentiating between pain and discomfort is asking the right questions. Here are a few questions you can ask your client to better understand the sensation they are experiencing:

What does it feel like?

Pain will provide a clear signal and it is fairly easy to verbalize. Words like sharp or shooting, throbbing or radiating, can indicate that pain is present. Discomfort may be more difficult to articulate as it can be a more nebulous experience. It may feel like a challenge, a burning sensation in the muscles, but is usually something they can handle—they may want to stop, but they don’t need to. Pain on the other hand triggers an innate impulse to stop immediately; it cannot, and should not, be ignored.

Where do you feel it?

Pain, especially in the instance of acute injury, is often felt in a specific location on the body. Though pain can be generalized, clients should be able to communicate clearly where it is felt. Generally speaking, muscles will be sore if your client is progressing or trying new exercises. If they’re feeling it in their muscles, that’s normal and is usually okay. However, it’s smart to be more cautious when sensation is felt around the joints or at muscle attachments. 

Does it change how you move?

In addition to asking our clients this question, we can also make our own observations. Clients may be able to recognize that they are trying to work around the sensation they are feeling, and you may be able to see the ways they are compromising form. For example, someone who is feeling pain in their ankle may limp when walking. If the sensation is intense enough to change how they move, it’s significant enough to take a break.

Communication with your client is more effective when they trust you. While you may be there to push and encourage them, your clients should feel comfortable expressing when they need to take a break. Be sure to let them know that you trust them as well; they know their bodies better than you do and only they can interpret the pain signals they receive.

Know when to stop

When pain is present, it is not your job to diagnose your client. If you or your client believe there is an underlying issue or a potential injury beyond normal soreness, they should consult a medical professional.

There may be a fine line between pain and discomfort and, ultimately, it’s better to stop and listen to the body’s signals than to ignore them and push through. While our clients’ confidence grows as they grow stronger physically and progress in their training, it is also empowering when they listen to their bodies and to know when to stop. Asking questions and communicating with our clients about the difference between pain and discomfort can improve their own communication with their bodies and empower them to push through when appropriate and to back off when necessary.