How to Prevent a Sneaky Muscle Strain from Derailing Your Fitness Progress

Are you increasing your risk of a muscle strain — without even knowing it? Learn why you need to care (and what to do about it) in this article.

Strong fit man yogi standing on his elbows on mat in the garden

When you’re trying to perfect a movement (e.g., the deadlift, squat, and bench press) or grow a seemingly hypertrophy-resisting muscle group — looking at you, delts! — you may be tempted to hit it every day.

Practice makes perfect. Plus, muscle size is positively associated with training volume. So, the more you perform an exercise/target a muscle group, the better results you’ll see … right?

Well, yes. But only up to a point.

And if you're doing them daily (or super frequently), you’re amplifying your risk for a silent, sneaky, thief-in-the-night-esque training injury around: the Muscle Strain.

In this article, we cover everything you need to know about this gains-stealer, including:

1️⃣ What, exactly, a muscle strain is
2️⃣ How you could be increasing your risk of it without even knowing
3️⃣ Actionable tips on how you could prevent getting a muscle strain
✨ … and more

What is a muscle strain?

Think about a muscle strain, and … the first thing to come to mind is probably the last time you agreed to help a friend move out of their apartment and tried to lift their bedframe — only to be met with excruciating pain in your lower back.

Um, too specific? Eh. Even if you haven’t experienced that exact scenario, you’re likely familiar with what an acute muscle strain feels like.

Yes, there are two types of muscle strains:

  • Acute muscle strain: This happens when your muscle tears suddenly and unexpectedly. Common causes include failing to warm up properly before physical activity (see, what did we tell you about warming up?), poor flexibility, and lifting something heavy (yes, your friend’s bedframe definitely counts).
  • Chronic muscle strain: The result of repetitive movement. Common causes include sports (e.g., rowing, tennis, and, of course, weightlifting) and poor posture (e.g., if you’re “stuck” in an anterior pelvic tilt).

All muscle strains are damaging

It’s important to note that both types of muscle strains can be equally damaging. Regardless of type, all muscle strains are classified into three grades:

  • Grade I: Only a few muscle fibers are stretched or torn. Complete recovery usually takes a few weeks.
  • Grade II: Involves a greater number of injured fibers, which, in turn, causes more severe muscle pain and tenderness. Complete recovery usually takes a few months (eight to ten weeks or more).
  • Grade III: A "through-and-through" tear. The most debilitating tear where the muscle rips into two separate pieces or shears away from its tendon. Causes complete loss of muscle function; typically, the torn muscle must be repaired surgically. Full recovery can take anywhere from months to years.

As most acute muscle strains are preventable — Warm up! Warm up! Warm up! — we’ll focus on chronic ones in this article.

How you’re unknowingly putting yourself at risk of a muscle strain

When it comes to how you could lower your risk of a chronic muscle strain, we dropped a huge hint (well, it was more like an outright answer) in the introduction.

Do not do the same movement or hit the same muscle group too frequently.

But "frequent" is incredibly vague. So, to bring clarity, we could look at how long muscles need to recover from a training bout.

According to most research, your muscles take between 48 to 72 hours to heal (generally, the higher your workout intensity, the longer they'll take to recover). To that end, you should give a movement or muscle group at least two to three days of rest between training sessions.

Okay, so that's enough to prevent chronic muscle strains, right? Not so fast — there's more.

See: even if you're giving yourself two to three days to rest between sessions, you may be "overusing" your muscles without knowing it!

How could that be? Well, one prime example is when you forget that a particular muscle group plays a significant supporting role for another:

Chest day ➡️ arms day: If you’re doing loads of pressing movements, you’ll already have clocked loads of volume on your triceps.

Legs day ➡️ back day: If you did loads of compound movements, like squats and deadlifts, you would have accumulated loads of fatigue on your lower back — which could hurt your ability to perform back exercises (e.g., barbell rows).

A few tips on muscle-strain-preventing workout programming

Now what? Here are three steps to take right now that’ll seriously lower your risk of a weightlifting-related muscle strain:

1️⃣ Write down your workout routine (list out the specific exercises you're doing that day) — of course, you don't have to use a pen and paper; you could type it out on a digital device if you wish.

2️⃣ Mark out the target muscles right next to your exercises. For example, here’s how I’d do it if my Monday plan looked like this:

a. Romanian deadlift: Traps, lower back, quads, glutes, hamstrings
b. Squats: Lower back, quads, glutes, hamstrings
c. Glute-ham raises: Lower back, glutes, hamstrings
d. Calf raises: Calves

3️⃣ Once you've listed the target muscles for all your workout sessions, scrutinize it to see if you're giving your muscle groups at least two days of rest.

⚠️ If you're not, find a way to shuffle your workout sessions around or replace exercises until you give each muscle group at least two days of rest between training sessions.

Want more tips on workout programming? These articles could help get you started:

How to Minimize Cardio and Strength Training Interference
Sometimes, it’s impossible to do your cardio and lifting on separate days. Here’s how you can minimize the interference effect for maximum gains.
Can I Build Muscle with Bodyweight Exercises?
“Can I build muscle with bodyweight exercises?” Yes, you can. But you’ll need to make a few adjustments to the way you train. Find out more here.
Barbell vs. Dumbbell: Is There a Clear Winner?
Barbell vs. dumbbell - which should you choose? And, perhaps more importantly, does it even matter in the grand scheme of things? We explore.
How to Build Muscle Faster in the Gym with Progressive Overload & Deloading
While there are no shortcuts, there are two methods you can use to build muscle more effectively: progressive overload and appropriate deloading.

This sliding puzzle feels … impossible?

Have you been sliding and swopping things around in your workout routine, only to realize that it’s impossible to meet the following “training best practices”?

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Fernandes, J. F. T., Lamb, K. L., & Twist, C. (2019). Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage and Recovery in Young and Middle-Aged Males with Different Resistance Training Experience. Sports, 7(6), 132.

Fernandes, T. L., Pedrinelli, A., & Hernandez, A. J. (2015). MUSCLE INJURY – PHYSIOPATHOLOGY, DIAGNOSIS, TREATMENT AND CLINICAL PRESENTATION. Revista Brasileira de Ortopedia, 46(3), 247–255.