MUSCLE CRAMPS vs MUSCLE PULLS: How to Tell the Difference

We’ve all been there. You’re three quarters of the way into a workout you’ve done before, sweating through the exercises and remaining focused on your form, when it hits. A small pain in your hamstring, lower back, or perhaps your calf. Suddenly the pain is worse and worse and… You stop, pause the DVD, and try to walk it off but it won’t disappear. You want to finish your session but you don’t want to make the pain worse. Is it a cramp or a muscle pull? How do you tell the difference? Do you stretch? Work through it? Here’s a quick guide on how to tell the difference between two of the most common aches and what to do about them.


A muscle pull occurs when a muscle is over-stretched, overloaded, or slightly torn. They are marked by three degrees. More often than not a pull occurs when you least expect it, so it’s tough to immediately diagnose what happened to your body and what to do next.

A 1st grade pull can be often confused for a cramp. The easy way to distinguish is to use your thumb and fingers to locate the source of the pain. If the spot is tender and hurts when subtle pressure is applied, it’s most likely a pull. If it feel more like a tense knot it’s probably a cramp. SLOWLY and GENTLY take a seat and hold a stretch through the tender spot. Most often a muscle cramp will unwind and the tension will disappear, although it can comeback and re-cramp. A pulled muscle will not unwind and will feel more painful if you choose to continue. If that’s the case, you are finished for the day. A 1st degree pull feels like a dull ache combined with a minor throb. It aches, you can probably continue, but you should stop. Use RICE after your workout on the pulled muscle to relieve inflammation.

A 2nd degree pull is more pronounced and painful and can quickly be diagnosed. As above, locate the spot of injury and use your thumb and fingers to find the sore spot. A gentle, slow stretch should immediately set off a distinct pain (not soreness but painful) without much resistance from the muscle. When you feel the pain make a note of the position where it start/stops, that is most likely the position you were in when it occurred. While the muscle can still work, it is obviously overloaded and compromised in strength. DO NOT stretch it further, and do not continue your workout as that will also make it worse. A 2nd degree pull is a quick flash of pain followed by aching, and while you can continue it’s painful to do so and the loss of strength is obvious. Call it a day and follow the RICE acronym to reduce swelling and irritation.

A 3rd degree pull/tear is unmistakeable as it announces itself in a painful, unmistakeable fashion. The 3rd and final degree of pull often involves major tearing, and is felt by a major pop, snap, or tearing sensation. It is marked by a complete loss of muscle function and is very painful. If that’s your case, use the RICE method to ease the inflammation and pain immediately, then see your doctor or athletic trainer for further instructions.


HIIT training like GSP RUSHFIT is prone to aches in your body and bumps in your training calendar. With a bit of attention these minor setbacks can be overcome easily and shouldn’t derail your training success. Contrary to popular belief, you cannot stretch out a muscle pull. You may stretch out a muscle cramp if done right, but you can only stretch a muscle pull worse. Once the muscle fiber is damaged with a micro tear or overload, continuous force and stretching will only make it worse. Continued activity on a pulled muscle will also increase your recovery time as swelling and irritation will increase until you ice your injury. The longer it takes you to recover, the longer it takes to resume working out at 100% again.

If the symptoms and pain of a muscle pull persist for more than three days, see a doctor for professional assessment. If you are pain and ache free, resume your workouts with attention to your sensitive muscle and use adjustments if you have to. Listen to your body and recover faster, you’ll be glad you did. Sweaty when you are!


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