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Muscle Soreness Is Good For You

Nate February 13, 2013 Fitness, NLU STORE 10 Comments

Throughout the short history of this magazine, we’ve had quite a few questions from readers about muscle soreness and what it means for your fitness goals, progress, how to manage it, etc… While I understand that to someone new to lifting, intense muscle soreness may be intimidating and/or incredibly uncomfortable, I want you guys to know that as unpleasant as it can be at times- it’s good for you.

So what exactly is muscle soreness? Muscle soreness is almost always a result of performing eccentric (stretching) movements at a higher frequency/intensity/both than your muscles are currently acclimated to. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s not a result of lactic acid build up (which I know I used to believe not too long ago), it’s not a result of insufficient warm up (which is important nonetheless), and it’s not a result of lack of stretching before or after the work out. The eccentric movement of a muscle, such as the lowering of an arm during a curl, with a challenging level of weight and/or reps will cause microtears in your muscle fibers. The soreness one experiences a day or two later is your body’s inflammatory response as part of the healing process.

While this might sound gruesome, to put it simply (as there are other variables involved and I don’t want to delve into the finer points of hypertrophy and natural HGH production at this time) it is what you need to get stronger and bigger. Your body rebuilds the fibers better than before in order to acclimate to the intensity and/or frequency you just lifted, and this acclimation happens quickly. As you can see then, in order to continue to grow you need to be constantly pushing your body, increasing reps and/or weight, or your muscle growth will stagnate.

Therefore, muscle soreness is something to be welcomed, not feared. It’s your body telling you that you’re doing shit right, that you’re pushing yourself beyond your threshold and not merely going through the motions. Personally, I am almost always in a state of semi-soreness because I’m not content just putting time in. Not only am I used to it, I embrace it, and I believe anyone actually trying to improve does as well. On the rare occasion that I am not sore a day or two after a lift, I hate it. I take it as a sign that I can do a lot more than I did and that I was being too cautious. Bad news for me now, good news for the next lift.

It also means, for new lifters and dudes switching up programs, that it is inevitable. If you read the aforementioned links, you will see that studies have shown there is almost nothing you can do to prevent it except having a shitty workout that doesn’t push your boundaries. No amount of vitamins or stretching or warming up will prevent your muscle fibers from microtearing during a demanding workout using eccentric movements (basically every lift worth doing in the weight room), so once again, embrace it.

As for those wondering if they should take a day off because of intense soreness, particularly due to new routines or being a newbie, your concerns are valid, to a point. That lift will be tough. However, if we recognize that your body quickly acclimates to new intensities, then it makes less sense. You can tough it out, get it all out of the way now and be good to go for the next week, or you can string out this process because you gave your muscles extra time to chill out causing you to be intensely sore well into the next week. I always go with the “get it out of the way” approach.

Now, as for remedying muscle soreness so the next lift isn’t so bad, there are some things that can take the edge off if you need to. The links at the beginning of the post list some things you can do, but for me I do a combination of three things:

  • Tough it out. Lifting, and activity in general, while sore actually has been shown to alleviate the soreness, and my experience backs it up. While the lift might be tough as shit, you’ll feel better afterwards.
  • Hot/cold/hot/cold showers. It would be better if I had access to ice baths and hot tubs, but I don’t and you probably don’t either so this is the next best thing. I go as hot as I can stand for four to five minutes, go to as cold as I can stand for a minute, and so on for three to four cycles. I found this invaluable   during the beginning week of German Volume Training (I’m very excited to share those results in a couple weeks). I took a two cycle one after the lift due to time constraints, ending on cold, and then before bed did a three to four cycle one ending on hot. You will sleep like a baby, and feel way better in the morning.
  • Foam Rolling. Foam rolling is great for working out kinks in muscles and stretching in general, but I also found that nightly sessions foam rolling in my living room watching TV were very therapeutic. It’s a perfect combination of painfully good, deep muscle massage and light activity for alleviating soreness. Just watch out, though, you might find that you become addicted to it because it’s that awesome. I use the SPRI High-Density 36 as I heard it is free of the defects and breakdowns associated with cheaper rollers and I haven’t been disappointed.

Muscles soreness, while sometimes inconvenient and not really all that fun, is good for you. It means you’re making the most of your gym visits, whatever your goals are. Ideally, you should come to relish the soreness, not fear it.

Swole Life.

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About The Author

They call me Fly, Fresh, and Young. Gym rat by day, lecherous drunkass by night. Follow me on Twitter @nate_moneyh.

10 Comments

  1. goy February 13, 2013 at 5:09 pm

    this is good to know I got confused when FFY (an other sites)comented in a previoius article your muslce needs at least 2 days to totally recover.While others say working out while sore you ruin your gains.
    Ill be sure to push it on those days.
    But when you work out while sore, you wouldnt be able to lift as heavy or complete your reps.
    when you guys lift while sore are you still able to hit your max or hit your full reps or still increase weight.Or do you guys just do light lifting on sore days?

    • Nate February 13, 2013 at 7:38 pm

      Alright so I think you’re conflating the mandatory one day rest period for muscle groups (ex: if you work tris/chest one day you need to wait at least one day before doing them again) with muscle soreness. You could very well be sore two days after your initial tri/chest workout, but you should still do it.

      When you lift with muscle soreness, you should still be going as hard as you can even if you’re not able to hit all your rep/weight goals. Sometimes you will be able to, sometimes you won’t. Either way, going light won’t solve anything, won’t improve anything, and will only set you up for another round of muscle soreness the next lift when you *do* go hard (because you haven’t acclimated to that intensity/frequency).

      There is really no good reason to skip or pansy it out on days when you are sore.

  2. lynch February 13, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    This article and followup comment have answered a few questions that had been bugging me about soreness — thank you!

    What do you recommend for warming up before lifting?

    • Nate February 14, 2013 at 12:55 am

      I’ll post about it this soon, but cliff notes version- 2-4 sets of the lift you intend on starting with, starting light weight and moving up gradually until the next set is your beginning set of your real lift. Low reps. Nothing to wear you out, merely something to get the juices flowing and your muscles prepared for the upcoming exertion, both physically and neurologically.

  3. goy February 13, 2013 at 11:21 pm

    o now that clears things up. Was totally confused ..thanx
    so even if sore on workout days still try and increase the weight/rep or at the least do the same intensity(weight/reps) like last workout to get use to the intensity and beat the soreness and get to the next goal

    • Nate February 14, 2013 at 12:56 am

      Yes

  4. Matt February 16, 2013 at 10:31 am

    combine this article with http://nexxtlevelup.com/fitness/preventing-overtraining

    I started a new program and ignored my intense soreness and tried to stick to it. I ended up burning myself out and getting sick soon after.

    If your body and mind are telling you that you need a day off… take a day off.

    • Nate February 20, 2013 at 3:23 am

      I’d be interested to know what exactly you were doing to cause that kind of burnout

  5. Funnel May 6, 2014 at 7:44 pm

    Glad you made this post – I had been thinking about this the other day.

    I used to run in high school & did the circuit – cross country, indoor, & then outdoor track. Our coach had a knack for taking a pack of gangly, marginally-talented kids and turning them into absolute animals.

    He did this by training our bodies harder than we ever could have imagined them being able to. And then some.

    Every day I was in pain – walking down stairs slightly sideways to ease my quads, bending down like an old man to pick up that pen I dropped, or grimacing to raise a fork to my mouth. Then there was the pain during each workout – every day I thought about not coming in. Then I told myself part-way through every set of intervals, that I was going to quit.

    I never did though, and it paid off. On the track of course, but also in how my body looked to the ladies, and when it came time for casual sports with friends outside of the running world.

    But I did enjoy those summers off – perhaps a bit too much. I missed not hurting and when it was up to me to keep adding a bit of pain to my summer regimen to stay fresh, I’d always opt to avoid it. Then came leaving high school – I quit running. I also pretty much quit adding discomfort to my life.

    Some years later I ended up having discomfort/pain reintroduced in the form of weird public speaking gigs that cropped up. At this time I thought back to running & how it actually felt good to be this uncomfortable. Perhaps I just missed it because it’s part of what makes a man, a complete man.

    Time to get back in the gym & whatever else in life, that can make me uncomfortable.

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