Ask The Trainer

Muscle soreness - sign of a great workout or symptom of overtraining?

January 10, 2015

Most people gauge the effectiveness of their workout by how sore their muscles get the day after training, but this is not always the best way to determine success. Don’t get me wrong; most of us who have been lifting for a long time expect occasional soreness, but we have also learned to tell the difference between the kind of soreness that will quickly heal and create stronger, more capable muscles, and dangerous soreness that could put us at risk of injury or overtraining. Here’s how to tell the difference between the two.

What is muscle soreness?

Just like death and taxes are unavoidable parts of life, muscle soreness goes with lifting weights and is something everyone who works out will eventually experience. It’s caused by micro trauma, or little injuries to the muscles from doing a new movement or lifting challenging weights. It is usually associated with the eccentric part of the movement, like lowering the bar after doing a bicep curl. Muscle soreness usually starts within 24 hours after a tough workout. It will peak on the second day and should be gone after 48 hours.

Good vs. bad muscle soreness

It’s totally normal to feel sore after a workout, but it’s also important to be able to tell the difference between a healthy soreness and a dangerous situation. A healthy soreness is one that the body will recover from and build stronger muscles capable of greater workloads. It makes muscles feel tight and stiff with a little soreness like you have been working out but normally goes away within 48 hours. It doesn’t feel like an injury and should not be in the joints or connective tissue.

On the other hand, if you are so sore you can’t walk down the steps for five days or you are constantly aching and in so much pain you have a hard time sleeping, there’s something wrong. This means your body is not getting enough time to rest and recover from your workouts and you’re experiencing a debilitating soreness that breaks down muscle, compromises connective tissue and leads to overtraining and a host of other health issues. Overtraining means you are breaking the muscles down faster than you can build them back up, and instead of repairing and becoming stronger, they will begin shrinking and lose strength. This also puts you at risk of muscle tears, pulls and connective tissue injuries. The bottom line is you should not have constantly sore muscles and aching joints, and should recover from tough workouts in a reasonable amount of time.

How to reduce muscle soreness

In my days of college football during triple sessions I stumbled across a great way to recover quickly from muscle soreness. One day after practice, I was so sore I could barely walk, so I decided to go to the gym and do a light, abbreviated workout with one exercise for each major muscle group just to feel the pump in the muscles. What happened next was amazing - within 15 minutes I was almost completely pain free and felt fresh and ready to go back to practice again. This little accidental discovery led me to understand that one of the best ways to ease muscle soreness is to have a little hair of the dog that bit you and go back to the gym. This technique works very well because it increases blood flow and flushes toxins out of the muscles, but it’s important not to overdo it. Start with two sets for each major muscle group - five or six exercises - and use weights that are 55-60 percent of what you would normally handle.

Remember, if you lift weights, you are going to experience muscle soreness but make sure you know the difference between a healthy soreness and a debilitating soreness that will diminish results and put you in danger of injury.

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