Building a healthy, beautiful body isn’t easy! It takes time, planning, sacrifice, patience, and, yes, a little pain along the way.

Good old muscle soreness is as much a part of working out as protein shakes and broiled chicken breasts. But it’s always important to “listen” to your body — and recognize the difference between routine muscle soreness and pain that’s telling you something’s wrong.

When you’re exercising and something starts to hurt, stop what you’re doing, or you may risk serious injury — injury that could set you back and cause you to lose hard-won gains. Stop, drink water, stretch lightly, and re-evaluate your form. Proceed with caution, and if pain persists, take a break, head for the ice, and seriously consider seeing your physician.

That last bit is particularly important for people with pre-existing joint or muscle issues. For certain conditions, consult your doctor before restarting your routine. I’m referring here to things like chronic neck pain, shoulder-impingement or rotator-cuff issues, chronic lower-back pain, and chondromalacia (deterioration of the cartilage under the kneecap, which can stem either from overuse or arthritis).

If you’ve been treated for one of these ailments, only with your physician’s approval should you return to working out. Most doctors will tell you that, with a well-tailored, progressive exercise program, many of the above conditions can be greatly improved — often without any prolonged layoff. If you’re working with a trainer, get a note from your physician clearing you to exercise, and ask the doctor to specify any physical restrictions you may have to observe.

Here are four precautions anyone can take to ensure awesome workouts, maximum gains, and zero injuries.

  1. Warm It Up. Doing a 5- to 10-minute warm-up before you train is critical. A brief walk to the gym from home or a few minutes on a recumbent bike can rev up your metabolism and warm up joints and muscles to prevent injuries.
  1. Stretch It Out. Stretch briefly and lightly before lifting weights. Save more intensive stretching of the muscle group you are working for between sets or after your overall workout. Greater flexibility decreases your chance of injury during weightlifting or any other sport or physical activity.
  1. Step It Up. Weight training should be progressive. Begin with a light warm-up set, and then progressively challenge your muscles with the next few sets, adding weight gradually and carefully. Keep a journal of the weight you lift.
  1. Watch That Form. Pay strict attention to your form as you perform each exercise. Get a good contraction of the muscle during the positive (or concentric) part of each rep, and slow down on the negative (or eccentric) phase of the motion. Take your time with each exercise, and make every rep of each set count. Don’t bounce, jerk or throw weights around.

Finally, remember: Good form extends to gym etiquette. Put weights and other equipment back where it belongs. This may also prevent injuries — since it could keep you from getting beaten up!