Soreness and Strength Training

So you’ve started training with weights.  Congratulations! You’ve now joined the fight against gravity.  Unfortunately, gravity almost alway wins, but every little victory we have over it helps us to achieve stronger, healthier bodies.  Maybe one day we’ll beat gravity, but if we don’t we’ll at least look and feel great.

Generally, after a few hard workouts in the weight room, the soreness starts to set in.  At first, you may think “Wow! That must have been a great workout because I’m sore!” And you would be mostly correct - Mostly.  Yes soreness may be a good indication you broke through some barriers your body wasn’t used to, but soreness can also indicate a lack of conditioning to a certain program.  

To be clear, there are people that believe you should never be sore and there are those that believe you should alway be sore or you aren’t working hard enough.  These groups have been head to head on every podcast and medium that allows them to proclaim their expertise on the subject, but ultimately I stand in the middle.

As I said, soreness is your indicator that you aren’t used to a program.  You will get sore.  But if we can remember back to the days of high school sports, the first few days of any program after weeks or months of doing much less are always the worst in terms of how you feel.  But as you continue and push through the first couple of weeks, your body starts performing rather than breaking down. And like in sports, your performance will not usually plateau just because you aren’t sore anymore.  On the contrary, you will keep improving, because you’re able to continue doing the same workouts more efficiently and with more intensity.

Soreness is also an indication of your recovery between workouts.  Soreness and overtraining go hand in hand. There are those that believe that you cannot overtrain, only under-eat.  This is simply not true - you can overtrain.  If you are not recovering from your workouts, then by definition you are overtraining.  The reality is that it is rare for the average person to truly overtrain, and when they do, it is easy enough to get back to normal relatively quickly.  It is more likely that you are not eating enough or sleeping enough to facilitate recovery than training so hard that your body can’t keep up.

Age can play a big role in this.  An 18 year old will have a very hard time overtraining because at that age, your body is a machine of everlasting energy and hormones that help the recovery process tremendously.  A 60 year old, however, must be on top of sleep and nutrition in order to keep a consistent routine in the gym without getting worn out. Note, however, that your ability to recover only gets harder, not impossible, as you get older.  The key difference is food, sleep, and frequency of workouts. Eat more, sleep more, and gauge the timing of your workout on how you feel.

While soreness is not the best indication of a good or bad workout, it is an indication of your body’s current ability to recover.  The best thing to do is monitor the level of soreness you feel. If things are just stiff, sometimes a little movement is all you need to loosen up.  But if your muscles are tender to the touch, it may be good to take a day out of the gym and make sure your sleep and nutrition are up to snuff. The most important thing is to keep moving.  Blood flow and nutrients can help reduce the inflammation in the tender areas but sitting or laying down all day after a hard workout does very little for your recovery.  

Strength training can be as simple or complex as you make it.  The bigger your goals, the more complicated things may get. But if you follow the fundamental rules of training - train, recover, adapt, repeat - you can make a lot of progress for a long period of time.  You build muscle when you are resting, not in the gym. So make your workout count, go home, eat well, sleep well, enjoy life, and repeat. The easier you make it on yourself, the fewer variables you have to play with.  Simple really is best sometimes.

-Rich Saad