I’ve been in the iron game for over 20 years and I’m always trying to find ways to improve recovery periods.
By reducing recovery periods, I can get back into the gym faster, stronger and more efficiently thereby speeding up my gains.
The faster you can get back into the gym, the faster you can grow. It only makes sense the get right back into the gym to train, train, and train again. However…
This isn’t always the case.
The key here is optimal recovery. Personally, the whole point of going to the gym is constant improvement. I want to always improve upon each of my lifts so that:
• I’m always growing;
• I’m constantly challenging my body;
• I try and make each and every workout more exciting and to avoid boredom;
I do this by making sure my body and mind are primed for each and every workout, which means I have to be in a recovered state in order for my body to be ready, and more importantly, a stronger state than it previously was. This is the key. Your body must be in a stronger, and healthier state than the previous workout session in order for it to grow quality muscle mass. However, as you improve with each passing workout, the workouts must become more and more intense in order to stimulate more muscle fibres.
The more intense and harder your workouts become, the more time it needs to recover. And this is where it becomes tricky.
When do you know it’s time to hit the gym that will allow your body to be in an optimal training state in order for it to be stronger and healthier? There are many, many opinions on this matter and one that needs to be looked at in a little more detail.
The first thing we need to do is to identify the muscle soreness. What is it?
Intense weight training induces muscle soreness, or more specifically “Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness” (DOMS). This type of muscle soreness is the uncomfortable feeling you get from training a specific muscle group, for example, triceps. The muscle soreness can last anywhere between 1 and 7 days, depending on the severity of the damage to the muscle with a peak pain period between 1 and 3 days (Nosaka). This type of muscle soreness can be attributed to:
• A new exercise program which the body is unaccustomed
• A change in exercise program or exercise that the body is unaccustomed
• A positive change in exercise intensity which can include exercise times, duration and weight used
Muscle soreness can be attributed to any movement that the body is unaccustomed to, including time, weight, and duration. Speed up your workouts in which your body is not accustomed and you’ll be sore the next morning. Add a tri or giant set to your workouts and you’ll probably be sore in the morning. Add an 20 extra pounds to the bar and you’ll probably be sore in the morning. The point is that by adding an element of the unknown to the body it will bring about a response by the body, in which it must adapt. By adapting, the body will change (In our case, build muscle and strength) according to that stimuli – Cause and Effect.
Now, the actual cause of muscle soreness is still up for debate. The first to discover delayed onset muscle soreness was a gentlemen named Theodore Hough. Back in 1902, Mr. Hough associated muscle soreness with muscle injury. He described muscle soreness as “rupture either of the muscle fibres, themselves, or of the connective tissue which transmits the pull of the fibre to the tendon.” (Hough, Theodore (1902). “Ergographic studies in muscular soreness”. American Journal of Physiology 1902 (7): 76–92.). Although this is a very broad diagnosis of delayed onset muscle soreness, it provides somewhat of a description of muscle soreness.
We know that there is a response to muscle damage caused by exercise (muscle soreness), however, what we don’t know for certain is what causes this damage.
Current research reveals the culprit to be the eccentric exercise movements (Dr. Ken Nosaka). According to Dr. Nosaka’s research (Nosaka, Ken (2008). “Muscle Soreness and Damage and the Repeated-Bout Effect”). Dr. Nosaka describes muscle soreness as:
“Unaccustomed exercise consisting of repeated or forced lengthening (eccentric) contractions induces muscle damage.
The most noticeable symptom of this damage is the muscle soreness that we experience after performing such exercise, which is often referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)”.
The eccentric part of a weight training movement is where the muscle is elongating. That is, the downward portion of a movement.
Let’s take the barbell curl for example. When you curl the weight up, the muscle is contracting and actually shortening as in the image below.
This is the upward, or concentric part of the movement.
Now, the eccentric part of the movement is the downward motion of the movement. At this point, the muscle is actually elongating, allowing the muscle to stretch. According to Dr. Ken Nosaka, this is where most of the muscle damage occurs – Image below.
Now that we’ve identified the muscle soreness the next big question is, should you train a sore muscle? Is there any benefit to it?
Like I said before, I’ve been in the iron game for over 20 years and I’m always looking for ways to decrease my recovery times. As you may know, the faster you can recover, the faster you can get back into the gym. The trick is to get back into the gym, stronger and healthier. Improvement being the imperative word here.
However, that doesn’t mean forcing my body to train when it’s not ready to train. There is a big difference between the two. Muscle soreness is akin to muscle damage – Research has proven this fact. The extent of muscle damage is dependant on the type, duration, and intensity of the exercise. Now, the big question is this:
“Is There Any Strength Loss Associated With Muscle Soreness”
According to a study done by John N. Howell, Gary Chleboun, and Robert Conaster entitled. “Muscle Stiffness, Strength Loss, Swelling and Soreness Following Exercise Induced Injury in Humans”, (Page 4), there is a significant amount of strength loss. According to the study:
“Exercise muscles exhibited a dramatic, 35%, loss of strength, on the day following the exercise . Although a slow trend toward recovery of strength is apparent after post-exercise day 3, even on the tenth post-exercise day the muscles had recovered only to about 70% of their control strength.”
Similar findings by R.B Armstrong suggests a strong correlation between delayed onset muscle soreness and decreased strength levels. According to the report entitled “Mechanisms of exercise-induced delayed onset muscular soreness: a brief review”, muscle soreness can have a negative affect on muscular performance.
According to the report:
“Delayed-onset muscular soreness (DOMS), the sensation of pain and stiffness in the muscles that occurs from 1 to 5 d following unaccustomed exercise, can adversely affect muscular performance, both from voluntary reduction of effort and from inherent loss of capacity of the muscles to produce force. This reduction in performance is temporary; permanent impairment does not occur.”
In a similar report,(Nosaka, Ken (2008). “Muscle Soreness and Damage and the Repeated-Bout Effect” page 64), found that:
“Delayed onset muscle soreness is a symptom particular to eccentric – induced muscle damage. Other symptoms of muscle damage include muscle weakness, stiffness, and swelling”.
In conjunction with strength loss, there are other factors that have been observed with delayed onset muscle soreness. One of these factors is a reduced range of motion. According to Dr. David J. Szymanski, muscle soreness is a result of “micro tears” within the muscles which leads to inflammation. The inflammation causes adverse affects on muscle performance including soreness, fatigue, stiffness, and reduced range of motion.
A decreased range of motion combined with poor strength levels will always equal a sub par performance. There is simply no way you can have a productive workout that allows you to improve from your previous workout while being physically exhausted.
I’ve written about muscle soreness before because I think it’s an important issue, especially when you start adding more and more intensity. I’ve tried training through the pain with damaged muscles and if there is one thing I’ve learned over the years, is to listen to my body. I’ve injured myself on various occasions because I “trained” through the pain.
The fact of the matter is this. Science has proven that 1) You lose a certain amount of strength with delayed onset muscle soreness; 2) Your muscles are stiff; And 3) There is a reduced range of motion associated with muscle soreness. These facts have been proven. Attempting to lift at a 100% when your body is at 60% can have some very adverse affects, especially when you are attempting to lift maximum poundages.
Experience tells me that when my muscles are only operating at 60%, my connective tissues and tendons try to make up the difference when attempting to lift heavy weights. This is not an ideal situation, especially when your connective tissues are already damaged from the previous session. This puts your muscles and connective tissues at risk. I’ve been there and done it and I’ve had to live with the consequences (Muscle tears and tendinitis).
We all know that in order to build strength and muscle mass, there needs to be an improvement with each passing workout. That is, we must improve upon our last workout by either:
• Using more weight doing the same amount of repetitions
• Performing more repetitions using the same weight; Or
• Performing the exercise/session in faster time.
All in all, this all adds up to more exercise intensity. The question is, should you workout and try to improve, while still in a delayed onset muscle soreness state?
Now, there are varying degrees of soreness that come into play which must be taken into account when deciding on whether or not to train a sore muscle group. Will it be beneficial to train a sore muscle group that will allow you improve from your last workout? This is the key question and is dependant on how well you gauge your own bodies response.
For example, does it take another persons help to get you out of bed the next morning after a hard chest and triceps session the previous day? Do you need additional/secondary assistance getting on and off the toilet because of sore legs? Can you make it up and down the stairs of your home/school/office without the use of secondary aids? Does the simple action of getting up off your seat cause you unbearable pain in your butt and legs? Can you move your arms in a circular motion without your shoulders and chest screaming out in pain?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, I’m pretty sure you’re too sore to go into the gym to give it 100%. There is simply no way of improving your workout if your body is in a complete state of chaos. These are indicators from your body that are basically telling you to stay home and take another day or two off from training. However…
There are times when it is ok to hit the gym. For example, slight tightness in your muscles are nothing to be too concerned about. If my triceps are a little tight from the workout I had a couple of days ago, I’ll still hit my chest or shoulders knowing that it shouldn’t cause me to lose too much strength. If my legs are a little uncomfortable from yesterdays workout, I’ll still hit the dead lift or bent over row today because I know I can still give it a 110% without too much trouble from my legs. If my biceps are a little tight/sore and it’s time to do my chin ups, I’ll still do the chin ups because I know I can still make improvements.
The point is to know when your body is in a position to improve upon your last workout and when you know it won’t improve – Or worse, have a negative impact on your training. Remember, success at the iron game is all about smart training that allows you to keep making constant improvements while keeping injuries to a minimum.
Listen to your body and you will constantly make improvements in the gym, improve training longevity and reduce the chance of overtraining, or worse injury.
Here are some additional resources:
All the best,
Blake has been weight lifting for about 28 years now. He's 45 years of age and started seriously training when he was 18 years old.
Blake is the founder of Building-Muscle101.com, a successful fitness website that has been around for more than 15 years.