Last time in Part 1 of the this post, we looked at things you do in the gym that cause muscle soreness and what is going on inside of your muscles that creates this soreness. Now, it is time to answer the big question: do I want to be sore? The answer to this and every other good training question is – “it depends”. Let’s look at what it depends on so you can answer this for yourself.
Do I want to be sore?
For many people soreness along with being tired and sweaty is how they assess the effectiveness of their workouts. (Personally, I believe things like body composition measures, strength, joint health, overall health and performance testing should be how you measure a good training program). However, the answer to this question is – it depends. Consider the following situations:
If you are a beginner, you want to try to minimize soreness. The two most important goals for you are to learn proper technique and progressively add weight. If you come to the gym and train too hard, you will get sore and it will delay your next training session. By avoiding soreness you can practice technique more often, learn the movements faster and progressively add weight more often. All of these factors mean you experience faster results!
If you are an athlete, you want to try to avoid soreness (especially in-season) as it tends to limit your range of motion and functional movement quality. As a result you take away from your ability to do the most important thing you can do as an athlete – practice your sport.
If your goal is gaining muscle, you need a certain amount of muscle damage to trigger muscle growth. This may result in more muscle soreness than you would get training for a different goal. However, there is not a direct link between exercise-induced muscle damage and delayed onset muscle soreness. Also, if you look at bodybuilders, you will see big muscles everywhere. However when you talk to bodybuilders, they will tell you that some muscles do not get sore from training. If you are training properly to gain muscle and you do get moderately sore, don’t worry. However, do not get too carried away with this.
Getting excessively sore can also delay recovery. Remember the basic goal of training is to stress the body in a way that relates to your goals, recover and repeat the process with a little more stress (e.g. weight lifted) next time.
How do I not get sore?
If after reading this, you realize that you do not want to get sore, then follow the following guidelines:
- Warm-up properly before training
- If you are a beginner or coming back from a layoff, start way too light and slowly build up from there
- Train more frequently. Look to train movement or muscle group 2-3 times per week instead of once
- Change routines and exercises less often
- Start light and gradually add weight to your lifts
- Use intensity techniques (e.g. forced reps) sparingly
- Limit eccentric stress. This can be done by avoiding extra slow lowering. If you really need to be extra careful here you can also do concentric (lifting phase) only exercises for at least some of your training. For example, if you are doing Olympic lifts and have access to bumper plates and a gym that lets you drop weights, then dropping the bar after it is caught instead of lowering it will make it concentric only and reduce soreness. Sled pulling or pushing is also great as it is a concentric-only exercise and thus produces very little soreness. Also, consider avoiding exercises that put the muscle in a hard stretch position. For example, if I want to limit hamstring soreness for an athlete, I might replace a Romanian deadlift with a single leg kettlebell deadlift.
What if I do get sore?
If you do get sore, try things such as: low intensity cardio, very light weight, high rep resistance training and massage (or foam roller work) may also help reduce soreness. Fish oil also seems to help. Also, if you do get too sore, based on what you now know, try to figure out why you got sore and if you can prevent it from happening next time.
Bottom line on muscle soreness
Remember that training is about getting better at your goals, not about getting sore and tired. If proper training for your goal causes some soreness (e.g. hypertrophy training), fine, but do not try to get sore. Instead, focus on tangible measures of improvement in your training, not just on how you feel.
What have you found helpful for dealing with muscle soreness?
Schoenfeld, BJ. & Contreras, B. Is Postexercise Muscle Soreness a Valid Indicator of Muscular Adaptations? Strength & Conditioning Journal: October 2013 - Volume 35 - Issue 5 - p 16–21.
Smith-Ryan, AE., & Antonio, J. (2013). Sports Nutrition & Performance Enhancing Supplements. New York: Linus Learning.
Szymanski, DJ. Recommendations for the Avoidance of Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness.
Strength & Conditioning Journal: August 2001 - Volume 23 - Issue 4 - ppg 7.