Here's what you need to know...
- Getting really sore after lifting weights doesn't necessarily mean that you had a good workout that will lead to gains.
- You can stimulate muscle growth without experiencing extreme soreness. That said, you should feel something after a tough workout.
- Most people experience more soreness when dieting, but that doesn't mean they're gaining more muscle.
- To reduce soreness and build/retain muscle optimally when dieting, reduce calories for most of the day but increase your pre, intra and post-workout nutrition.
A Love/Hate Relationship
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 sucked? Or is soreness a bad sign, as some coaches have suggested?
As lifters and athletes, getting sore is something we've learned to love because we associate soreness with a productive workout. But it's also something we hate because soreness can hinder our training.
I could write a super scientific piece detailing the specific physiological phenomenon occurring to get you sore, but let's keep this "trenches-based." Here's my opinion based on my experiences and those of my athletes and bodybuilders.
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 your lifting session.
DOMS occurs 12-72 hours after training, depending on the individual. Along with the discomfort comes associated swelling (the muscle almost looks pumped), 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 you weight train you cause micro-trauma to the target muscles, which is essentially an injury and thus results in inflammation and pain/tenderness. Methods that can cause the most muscle trauma – accentuated eccentrics, shock absorption, handling very challenging loads for several attempts – will lead to the most soreness.
While this is mostly true, there's more to it than that.
Big and Never Sore
I train an IFBB pro bodybuilder who never got sore in his biceps, and he had very big biceps. He got sore for the first time when we used occlusion training with very light weights and no emphasis on tempo whatsoever.
Lifting light weights without emphasizing the eccentric portion (the negative) or having to abruptly stop and reverse direction shouldn't cause much actual muscle damage. The mechanical stress itself is low. Yet this is the type of training that made his biceps sore for the first time in his life.
Likewise, many bodybuilders experience more soreness in the lats from doing light work with constant tension and peak contractions than with heavy lifting. So while micro-trauma will indeed cause soreness, simply stimulating the catabolic-anabolic process can cause soreness, regardless of damage.
Basically, when you're stimulating a muscle enough or with the proper form of stress, your body will make it stronger and faster. Inflicting damage via heavy lifting is an obvious way to do that, but it's not necessarily the only way.
For example, slow eccentrics, even with light weights, can stimulate growth via the activation of the mTOR pathway. Occlusion training – restricting blood flow to the muscle when training – can also stimulate growth but via the accumulation of metabolites inside the muscles and depriving them of oxygen – two things that lead to the release of local growth factors such as IGF-1.
In both cases you can initiate the muscle-building process without causing muscle micro-trauma. And with both of these methods people get sore.
Soreness is more than just pain associated with a physical injury to the muscles. Soreness is something the body perceives during protein degradation then accretion (muscle building) following training, when the amount of work you did exceeded what your body is used to handling.
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 the fact that the periods where we have the most severe DOMS are normally the periods where we gain the most muscle. For example, when you first start training even the simplest workout can cripple you for days. I've actually had clients who went to the hospital the day after a session because they thought they injured themselves!
It also happens when you come back to training after a layoff: you get sore more than normal and you also gain muscle faster (regained muscle that was lost during the layoff). It can also happen when you switch to a totally different style of training, which can also lead to quick gains.
But is being sore necessarily an indication that you'll gain muscle? And is the lack of soreness an indication that your workout was a waste of effort?
The answer is "no" in both cases.
To quote Matt Perryman, "It just means that you've outdone your body's current capacity to do work, be it intensity, duration or both."
When you're a beginner or coming back from a layoff, the more you train the better your body becomes at tolerating training. So in those cases, being sore doesn't mean you're stimulating more muscle growth; it means that your body isn't used to handling that amount of physical stress. That leads to a biological state where your body mobilizes its resources to fight to maintain its balance.
The same is true to some extent when you switch to a new program or exercise. Your body might not be used to that type of loading. Because of that, your body isn't efficient at handling it, so you get a bit more sore than usual.
Dieting and Soreness
If you've ever dieted hard to get super lean, you know that when you reduce calories and nutrients significantly you'll tend to be more sore than usual, and the soreness will last longer.
Does that mean you'll build more muscle when dieting down? Of course not! It means that because of the reduction in calories, your capacity to handle physical loading decreased.
By the same token, 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.
Now, if your goal is to lose fat you might not have a choice about being in a caloric deficit. In this case it becomes even more important to invest in a proper peri-workout protocol like Plazma™. This will insure that at the time of the workout you have plenty of nutrients in you to fuel your session and the necessary nutrients and electrolytes to handle the stress of that session.
That's why when I'm trying to get leaner, I reduce carbs and calories throughout the day but I increase my Plazma intake pre and during the workout.
What should I feel after lifting?
Perception is strong. It's easy to make connections that aren't true based on what you experience.
When you get more advanced, you tend to not be as sore. A lot of very advanced athletes and bodybuilders are almost never sore from training. Their body is so used to handling training that they very rarely traumatize their muscles enough to cause the stress response that will lead to debilitating soreness.
With experience, your body becomes desensitized to the feeling of the pain. So the level of soreness you feel is not necessarily representative of the amount of gains you'll get. Likewise, not being sore doesn't mean that you didn't stimulate gains optimally.
However, the day after a good training session you should have some swelling and "enhanced feeling" of the muscles. They should feel a bit tighter and harder, and you should be more aware of them.
If my experience, if the muscles you trained feel normal or even "flat" the day after a workout, you either didn't stimulate them properly or you didn't give them enough nutrients to grow optimally.
The Drawbacks of Soreness
A few months I did a crazy complex. It consisted of:
A1. Accentuated Eccentric Speed Squat 295 pounds on the bar plus 90 pounds of chains and 120 pounds on weight releasers during the eccentric phase.
A2. Jump Squat with 135
A3. Depth Jump
I did 6 rounds like that.
I really thought I did something solid. But the thing is, my legs were so sore I couldn't even go down into a quarter squat (without weights) for 7 days! And 12 days later my leg strength still hadn't gone back up to normal.
In that case, the soreness negatively impacted my training, both by reducing strength and range of motion. I couldn't do any lower body work or my Olympic lifts! It even affected my push press and military press because standing up with a weight was painful.
That is an extreme case, but even if it doesn't reach that level, excessive soreness can impair your training. This is especially true of athletes who need to move freely and rapidly.
Sometimes, soreness can simply prevent you from reaching the proper lifting positions and makes the execution of a compound lift less efficient. And practicing the lift with bad form can lead to bad motor habits. Even though being sore can be a pleasant feeling for a hardcore gym addict, I still try to minimize it so that my overall training quality can be enhanced.
So there's no doubt that soreness can hurt training. If you're a bodybuilder using a body part split, this is likely less problematic than for an athlete who trains at least half of his body during each session or uses whole-body movements.
Soreness: Suck It Up
Taking extra measures to alleviate the pain, like using NSAID or aspirin for example, is a bad idea. It's been shown that these drugs actually interfere with the rate of recovery from training by masking some of the signals that initiate the construction and repair process.
I'm also against the use of recovery measures... at first. By that I mean ice baths, contrast showers and the like. Once you reach a fairly advanced stage and you're well adapted to training they're fine to use. But when you're still building your capacity to tolerate stress you don't want to use too many means that artificially make you recover faster. Force your body to become good at handling and recovering from physical stress!
Training-wise, the more frequently you train – and the more frequently you train a muscle – the faster you'll become good at tolerating training stress. So by training more often with less volume you'll be able to train more often without being sore.
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 a few hours after a workout: walking, biking, or doing a moderate physical activity to increase blood flow to the muscles.
This is especially effective if your blood is loaded with nutrients (Mag-10® is a good option here) because those nutrients will be shuttled to the muscles requiring them for repair.
Can I train a muscle that's still sore?
Here's where we are so far. We know that:
- The magnitude of the felt soreness isn't necessarily an indication of the quality of your workout.
- Even if you aren't sore it doesn't mean that your workout wasn't optimal.
- If you aren't at least a bit tight or have an enhanced "feeling" of the muscle you worked, it's possible that your workout wasn't as effective as it could have been.
- Excessive soreness can cause issues with performance by reducing mobility and/or strength. Too much soreness can interfere with the productivity of a workout.
But now the question becomes, can we train a muscle that's still sore?
First, there are several degrees of soreness. Sometimes a muscle can feel a bit tender but there isn't any muscle swelling. The muscle merely looks and feels a bit harder than usual. There may be a little tenderness, 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 perfectly possible – and even 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. Performing a feeder session the day after an intense workout is very effective.
By "feeder session" I mean doing pump work for the sore muscles – light-ish work focusing on the quality of the contraction and establishing a pump. This will not further damage the tissue but will increase its speed of recovery and repair by increasing nutrient uptake and protein synthesis (and also a host of other benefits involving cytokines and the repair process).
I like to do hard strength work on a basic lift on one day and isolation work for the muscles involved in that lift at the beginning of the next day's session.
Enhanced Feedback Training
Another benefit is enhanced feedback training. When it comes to being able to stimulate a specific muscle group to grow, the first step is to learn to maximally recruit that muscle and involve it in lifting exercises.
I've seen a lot of beginners ask, "Where should I be feeling this?" when doing an exercise. Oftentimes they really don't feel the muscles doing the work; they don't feel the hard contraction used to produce tension and force. And if they can't feel a muscle properly they can't make it grow, at least not maximally.
The same can be said for more advanced lifters who can't feel one of the muscles involved in a big basic lift. For example, they might feel their front delts and triceps during the bench press, but not their chest. In their case, learning to feel their "weaker" muscle contracting during an exercise is the first step in correcting a weakness that's holding them back.
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 thus represents an investment in the future gains you'll be able to stimulate.
Yeah, but won't training a sore muscle interrupt the repair process?
That's a legit question. But the answer is no.
Studies have shown that a second bout of exercise for a muscle group (before the muscle has fully recovered) does not interrupt markers of repair, including protein synthesis.
Repair isn't something that happens for a specific period of time. Your body is always repairing and changing the structures. It's not like: destroy the muscle when training, repair it when you're off, and when the repair/growth is done it stops.
No, there's always a turnover of proteins in the muscles. See repair as something that goes on 24/7. The body is always "working" on the muscles. Training a sore muscle doesn't halt or delay the rebuilding – it simply changes the job the builders have to do.
Now obviously if a muscle is severely sore it's best to leave it alone... almost. A light bout of physical activity will speed up recovery. Even a brisk walk will help. Think about it as a way to increase blood flow and deliver nutrients to the muscles.
Stay Objective and Grow
A lot of people use soreness as a gauge for workout performance, and they always 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.