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.