Should you train a muscle group or lift when you’re still sore from your last workout? If so, should that training be different?
If you’re not sore from a workout, does that mean the workout was ineffective?
For many people, getting sore is something we’ve associated with a productive workout, although there’s more to understand about it. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to dig into the physiology. This will be more practical.)
What is Muscle Soreness?
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is generally seen as local pain in a trained muscle resulting from inflicted muscle damage during a lifting session. DOMS occurs 12-72 hours after training, depending on the individual. Along with the discomfort comes stiffness in the affected joints and a possible loss of strength and extensibility – thus reduction in mobility – of the muscle.
In other words, the generally accepted theory is that when we weight train we cause micro-trauma to the target muscles, which is essentially a tiny injury and thus results in inflammation and pain/tenderness.
Basically, when we’re stimulating a muscle enough with the proper amount of stress (the amount of work done exceeds what our body is used to handling), our body will adapt to be stronger/faster.
I’m sore! Does that mean I had a good workout?
Most of us have grown to welcome DOMS. We believe soreness tells us we’ve done something that will lead to growth or positive progress.
This perception is reinforced by some trainers/coaches that actively seek to get their clients sore with every workout as a way to demonstrate how “good” the workout was.
It also happens when we come back to training after a layoff: we get sore more than normal. It can also happen when we switch to a totally different style of training.
But is being sore necessarily an indication that we’re making progress? And is the lack of soreness an indication that the workout was a waste of effort?
No and no.
All is means is that we’ve outdone our body’s current capacity to do work, be it intensity, duration or both.
Nutrition and Soreness
Nutrition plays a big role in our bodies ability to recover from workouts. Inadequate nutrients surrounding the workout period can increase soreness by making your body less equipped to resist and handle physical work. Making sure you’re getting enough nutrients is very important if you want to reduce soreness.
It’s important that at the time of the workout (pre, during and/or post) we have the necessary nutrients and electrolytes to handle the stress of that session.
A great strategy when aiming to get leaner is to reduce carbs and calories throughout the day except 1-2 hours pre and post-workout.
How can we alleviate soreness?
Taking extra measures to alleviate the pain, like using NSAID or aspirin for example, isn’t the best idea. It’s been shown that these drugs actually interfere with the rate of recovery from training by masking some of the internal signals that initiate the construction and repair process.
I also don’t feel like recovery measures (cryotherapy, ice baths, etc.) are best for most people, at first. After someone has been training consistently for at least a year or two and have started to understand their bodies more, they’re fine to use. But for a beginner that is still building their capacity to tolerate stress, I don’t think it’s best to use too many means that artificially help recover faster. It’s valuable to force our bodies to become good at handling and recovering from physical stress since this has carryover to many other ares in our lives, too.
Training-wise, the more frequently we train the faster we become good at tolerating training stress. By training more often – with less volume – you’ll be able to train more often without being sore. Our bodies are meant to move daily.
Mobility work done at the end of a workout is also a good idea. Not stretching, but rather dynamic mobility drills. If you have the time, I recommend moving for a bit hours after a workout: walking, biking, or doing a moderate physical activity to increase blood flow to the muscles. This is also great to do on rest days when you don’t have a planned training session. This is especially effective if your blood is loaded with nutrients (from eating nutrient-dense foods) because those nutrients will be shuttled to the muscles requiring them for repair.
Can I train a muscle that’s still sore?
First, there are several degrees of soreness. Sometimes a muscle can feel a bit tender, but there’s no real loss of mobility or strength. Other times the soreness can be so debilitating that your mobility and strength are severely limited. In this case, the soreness has become limitative; it’s a mistake to train that muscle hard again.
Now, if the soreness isn’t so intense that it hinders your capacity to perform at an adequate level, it’s possible and advisable to train using exercises involving the sore muscles.
Why? Because an increase in blood flow and nutrient transport to the muscle can speed up recovery.
Improve Mind-Muscle Connection
Some of my clients ask, “Where should I be feeling this?” when doing a new exercise. Oftentimes they really don’t feel the muscles doing the work; they don’t feel the contraction used to produce tension and force. If they can’t feel the target muscle properly, their body may be compensating using other means to perform the movement (which isn’t ideal).
One of the benefits of soreness is an increased awareness of the sore muscle. Even at rest you feel it more. Not surprisingly, when you do an exercise you’ll greatly feel the sore muscle during the execution of the movement. This is something that will increase mind-muscle connection and can make future training sessions more effective.
A lot of people use muscle soreness as a gauge for workout performance, and they seek to be inhumanly sore. If they don’t get sore they go even crazier in the gym, often leading to training loads exceeding what their body can optimally recover from. This leads to stagnation and frustration.
If you understand soreness a little better, it will help you stay more objective with your own training. In other words:
- Soreness should not be the goal of a workout.
- The magnitude of the felt soreness isn’t an indication of the quality of your workout.
- Even if you aren’t sore it doesn’t mean that your workout wasn’t optimal.
- When sore, the best thing to facilitate faster repair is to move the body:
- Train other muscle groups in the gym that day.
- Perform a low-intensity mobility circuit at-home.
- Walk at least 20 minutes.