I get it. We live in extreme times. We work hard, we play hard. We want results. And for many folks that means wanting to leave the gym feeling like they got the sh*t kicked out of them. I’m a personal trainer at a luxury gym in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. catering to high powered lawyers, technology execs and entrepreneurs. Many were D1 college athletes, are ex-Crossfit fanatics (until they got injured) and are delightfully A-type (just like me). My clients mean business and they want results. Yesterday.
So for the most part, they revel in the initial, seemingly debilitating soreness that comes at the beginning of a fitness journey. With Schadenfreude in their eyes and a smirk on their faces, they (literally) tell me things like: “After our last session I felt like I got hit with a bag of hammers” and “I was so sore I had to get my partner to help me off the toilet this morning”.
At first, I’m excited that they are beginning to feel these muscles they haven’t used for so long. They are getting in touch with their bodies, learning what they are capable of and psychologically proving to themselves they can hang. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a little sick pleasure from giving them a good (more importantly safe and effective) *ss kicking while also helping them with their injuries, posture and mobility.
But inevitably, as they get stronger and their bodies become accustomed to regular exercise the sweet smirk turns to furrowed brows and puzzled looks. Little comments surface like “I wasn’t really sore after squats last week” or “Do you think I’ve stopped making gains?” Regardless of what the numbers (body fat, muscle mass, 1RM), mirror and even their own eyes say they feel that yearning for a good “I can’t get off the toilet” feeling.
The simple fact is that muscle soreness is not necessarily indicative of an effective workout or training program. In fact, if you’re sore after every workout that’s a bad thing. This is a hard pill for some of us A-typers to swallow, so let’s examine Five truths about muscle soreness.
Soreness comes from change. Exercise is purposely induced stress on the body to elicit change (reduce body fat, add muscle, become more flexible). When we put our bodies through a brand new stress (like when we first start working out, come back to the gym after a long break or add a new exercise to our workouts) our bodies respond like WTF?! and we feel sore in the following days. Luckily, our bodies are extremely adaptive and get with the program quickly and become more accustomed to the movements even while we continue to progress them and make gains. When we add new movement patterns or change significant variables (i.e. front load versus back load, rep/set scheme, angle, plane of motion) we are more likely to get a visit from the Soreness Fairy.
Soreness does not necessarily mean effective. After the first time I back squatted, front squatted, deadlifted and bench pressed my body weight I wasn’t sore in the days following. But I had hit personal records and worked myself to failure. And my program had made me stronger, leaner and more muscular. My body was used to the movements required in these lifts so when I pushed it hard, it knew what to do. Yes, it’s important to change the variables of your workouts in a planned and progressed manner to keep improving and to work toward your goals. And these changes can lead to bouts of soreness until the body quickly adjusts again. But the notion that we should be sore after every work or even after the majority of our workouts is misguided.
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Chronic soreness can be a sign of trouble. When people tell me they are sore after every workout that’s a red flag. It can mean they are not working out consistently enough (i.e. always starting back at square one) or they are varying their workouts too much (hodgepodge or haphazard programming without structure and defined goals). It can also be a sign of poor nutrition and hydration, poor rest and not enough recovery (body fat is lost and muscle is built during recovery). Continuing to train without ample recovery can lead to more serious illnesses, injuries, and reversal of progress.
Certain types of exercises can elicit soreness more than others. Exercises that focus on the eccentric portion of the movement (when the muscle is lengthening under load or fighting gravity to slow or stop the weight from moving) tend to make us sorer because of the way they break down the muscle fibers. For instance, slowly released (for a count of 3 or 5) chest flies, pull ups or bicep curls or banded back squats or bench presses tend to make us sorer than their faster tempo counterparts. The bonus is that eccentrics can more quickly hypertrophy the muscle so they’re a favorite among those chasing aesthetics (and there’s nothing wrong with that!).
Results are what matter, not how sore you are. Bottom line: focus on the numbers (body composition, performance, circumference measurements, FMS score, whatever you are tracking), your eyes (how you look in the mirror and how your clothes fit) and how you feel (stronger, healthier, faster, more mobile, etc).
Got it? Being sore sucks. So how can we avoid it or minimize it? Here are five tips.
Recover. Get adequate sleep, stay hydrated and eat a balanced, nutrient-rich meal after your workouts that include protein, healthy carbs and depending on your nutritional plan and body type some healthy fat.
Program. Most of my clients who train 3-5x+/week can’t and shouldn’t go heavy every session. For most folks this wouldn’t allow adequate recovery. So consider programming light, medium and heavy days and don’t introduce too many new movements or variables all at once.
Ice and Ibuprofen. When the pain really sucks, these are commonly accepted remedies. Typically ice is recommended overheat, but the jury is still out on that.
Mobility Work. Self Myofascial Release (SMR), foam rolling, gentle stretching and light massage will also help.
The author of this post is J. He is a personal trainer and nutrition coach based in San Francisco. He was voted San Francisco’s Hottest Male Trainer in 2015 and named an Equinox Top Producing Trainer in 2014. Read what his clients say about him on his web site www.jj-fit.com and subscribe to his blog JJFIt24/7 for free fitness and nutrition tips, articles and videos. You can also reach out to him via his links below: