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Muscle strain, pull and tear refers to the damage of a muscle and/or its attaching tendons, and they can occur (and frequently do) at any time, during any kind of activity where the muscle in question experiences undue pressure.
Signs of muscle strain include swelling and bruising, pain whilst resting and/or whilst in use, weakness of the muscle and sometimes the inability to use the muscle at all.
The most obvious step in helping to prevent muscle strain is to make sure you stretch well before and after exercise or lifting (particularly if the activity is not regular), and to adhere to a good warm-up routine.