Should You Exercise with Muscle Strain?

shirtless man working out with dumbell

The quick answer to this question is: yes and no. Muscles strains are minute tears in the muscle tissue caused by misuse, or overuse. Muscle strain can cause pain and swelling as well as weakness in the injured muscle. In severe cases you may even lose mobility during the acute stage of the injury. If you don’t allow a muscle strain to heal properly, you will be more likely to reinjure that same muscle in the future.

Having said all that, whether or not you can continue to exercise with a muscle strain ultimately depends on the severity of the strain, which muscles are injured, and the type of exercise you wish to perform.

The Severity of the Strain

Muscle strains are actually categorized in degrees, from first to third, with third-degree strains being the most severe.

• First-degree strains have very little tissue damage. You may experience mild tenderness and some pain when you move the muscle through its full range of motion.
• Second-degree strains have moderate damage to the muscle or tendons. You may experience pain and swelling in the injured muscles, as well as limited range of motion.
• Third-degree strains have extensive tissue damage. You may experience severe pain at first, then no pain (and even numbness) in the injured muscle. Your range of motion will be severely limited, and you may not be able to move the muscle at all.

If you have a first-degree strain, you may be able to exercise after allowing yourself a period of rest. If you have a second-degree strain you may be able to exercise after a period of rest, and additional treatment. If you have a third-degree strain you may not be able to exercise at all, until the injury has completely resolved.

Which Muscles are Injured and the Type of Exercise

If the injury is in a muscle that can be isolated, and immobilized, but still allow you movement, you might be able to exercise before the strain has healed.

For example:

• If you strain your hamstring, you can avoid standing and lower-body exercises in favor of seated upper-body exercises.
• If you strain your shoulder, you can wear a sling and avoid upper-body exercises.
• However, if you strain your back, your neck, or any of your other core muscles, you may find it difficult and painful to do any type of exercise.

Preventing Muscle Strain

Muscle strain is usually caused by overuse, or misuse. Using the wrong form when exercising and pushing yourself beyond your physical limits are the two biggest culprits. Paying attention to your body’s pain and fatigue signals, and slowing your rate of progression when adding new elements to your routine, can both prevent muscle strain.

Wearing compression activewear can also reduce your risk of injury. In fact, a recently published study shows that people who wear compression garments during vigorous exercise had less damage to their muscles than those without.

Treating a Muscle Strain

Most medical and sports professionals recommend you follow the PRICE principle when treating a muscle strain. PRICE stands for:

Protect – Stop all activity to prevent further injury to the muscle;
Restrict – Isolate and immobilize the muscle to initiate healing, and prevent further injury;
Ice – Apply ice to the area to bring down swelling;
Compression – wrap the injury in a compression bandage to further immobilize and encourage healing; and,
Elevation – keep the injury at, or above the level of the heart.

A first-degree strain may only require you to follow PRICE for a day, before you can return to your normal activities; whereas a third-degree strain could require you to follow PRICE for several days, and even weeks.

If you have a third-degree strain, or if what you thought was a first-degree strain does not improve within 48 hours, you should seek medical attention to make sure it’s not a sprain or a fracture.

Other Considerations

Although you are cautioned to keep a strained muscle immobile during the acute phase of the injury, staying immobile too long can actually hinder the healing process. Even if you are still experiencing pain, if the acute phase has passed, stretching and light movements can actually encourage blood flow, reduce stiffness, and restore flexibility to the injured muscles.

Once you have stabilized your injury, usually within 24 for 48 hours, you may be able to do mile, rehabilitative exercises, with your doctor’s permission. However, you should be careful not to overdo it, otherwise you could reinjure yourself.