No Pain, No Gain? – Part 3: Should I still train if I am sore?

Should I train whilst still being sore from my last training session? If so, should the training be varied at all?

Getting sore is something that a lot of us have learned to love because we associate soreness with a productive workout. However, soreness can also be seen from time to time as something we hate because soreness can hinder our training and progress…. and even lead to injury.

An example that often comes to mind for me is one of a rugby player who decided to do some depth jumps and a high rep back squat competition with his friend 5 days before a charity game. After 5 sets of depth jumps he decided to do the heaviest weight possible for 3 sets of 20 reps on his back squats. The result was legs that were so sore he couldn’t even sit into a chair without pain for four days….. Not to mention the fact that he could barely run by the time of game day. His line speed was terrible on the day and he couldn’t move around properly or at a quick enough pace. He became a sitting duck and got 3 broken ribs for his trouble when he failed to evade an opposition player quick enough. In this case, soreness clearly had a negative impact on his overall performance and training for some time to come. He couldn’t even train other movements and body parts properly in the gym for the four days prior to match day because of the overall effect his legs were having on how the rest of his body moved. This is a prime example of how training to the point of debilitating soreness can hinder not just your next workout, but put a slowdown on longer term training progress altogether.

 

Now before forming a blanket conclusion that you should not train at all when you are sore, first realise that there are several degrees of soreness. The last case was an example of one extreme where it would be a mistake to train that muscle hard again. Sometimes a muscle can feel only a little bit tender, without any associated swelling – the muscle merely looks and feels a bit harder than usual. Although the muscle may be a little tender, there’s no real loss of ROM or strength. If the soreness is mild and it doesn’t hinder your capacity to perform at an adequate level, it’s perfectly possible (even advisable) to train using exercises involving the sore muscles.

As mentioned earlier, there are a number of restorative exercise methods that can help facilitate recovery and help reduce DOMS. A particularly effective method is doing strength training for the sore muscle groups with lighter loads than those which were involved in the original workout that made you sore. This form of training is geared towards lower weights and high reps in order to increase blood flow. The increased blood flow enhances nutrient uptake and protein synthesis in the targeted muscles. This kind of training involves working up a ‘pump’, and a feeling of fullness within the muscles involved, without causing any micro trauma in the process. These types of workouts can be performed as early as one day after an intense workout with associated DOMS.

 

But won’t training sore muscle groups delay and hinder the growth and repair process?

Research has concluded that secondary bouts of exercise for muscle groups that have not fully recovered from initial workouts, do not interrupt body repair markers (including protein synthesis). Repair isn’t something that happens once off or for just a window of time. Your body is always repairing and changing its structures. The process is not: breakdown muscle whilst training, repair it on rest days, and when the rest days are finished, the repairing stops. Instead, your body is in a constant state of tissue repair and turnover. In fact, the oldest cell in your body is no older than 10 years old. There is always a turnover of proteins in the muscles. Repair is something that goes on 24 hours, 7 days a week. Exercising a sore muscle doesn’t halt or delay the rebuilding process – the body goes on repairing regardless.

 

So how should I feel after training?

Perception is strong. It’s easy to make connections that aren’t true based on what you experience. This is why you see a lot of people doing the same routine, day in, day out, year in, year out – they once got soreness or a certain feeling from a workout or an exercise – a subjective experience.  Whether the feeling was an accurate indication of effectiveness or not, these people stick to the very same routine because they felt it worked for them in the past, and therefore by doing more of the same, it will work for them in the future – even if it is despite the fact that they have stalled on the same weight, and/or work capacity for some time now. You may have experienced this yourself – you got good results originally your endeavours but have not seemed to surpass your former benchmarks.

 

For some, their solution is to admit defeat, call it a ceiling on their physical capacity and keep the bar loaded with the same amount of weight or less each & every week. Then there are others, who decide to chase that original feeling by other means, they start an addictive cycle of jumping to anything that makes them feel sore. They believe that this is the only way of truly connecting the dots – an association of feeling with progress. But this path only leads to a dead end too. This is because basing the effectiveness of a workout by how sore it makes you feel, becomes a harder as you become more advanced. A lot of very advanced athletes and bodybuilders are rarely sore from training. Their bodies are so used to handling various training loads that they very rarely shock their muscles enough to cause the stress response that will lead to DOMS.

 

As we have seen so far, going by feeling is not exactly the best gauge of progress in the gym. Many people try to let the experience define them rather than trying to define the experience. You can stimulate muscular development without experiencing extreme soreness. With that said, you should feel some sort of fatigue as a result of most workouts. This fatigue can be localised to the main muscles involved in the workout or it can be on a more general and holistic level fatigue such as neural fatigue. Feeling like a nap after training is not a bad thing – it is often a common response by the body to the workout that was endured. Fatigue will manifest itself in different ways for different people. Restricting this response to only muscular soreness however is not a very accurate indicator of your overall state.

 

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