Leg day observer

How sore is too sore? What every weight lifter needs to know

While soreness can be brutal, it’s not exactly pain.

woman lifting weights
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You know the feeling. A dull ache takes over your quads for a weekend, a burn takes over your arm after a series of bicep curls: soreness.

Soreness is assumed if you lift weights. Gains won through heavier poundage and more reps, stress the muscles. Muscles first tear, then they grow, and when they tear they can get inflamed, and feel sore. Occasional soreness is inevitable for all lifters. Beginners and elite lifters tend to feel it most often because of the shock of the novelty and weight of their programming, respectively.

But although soreness is a feature of lifting, it’s not very well understood. How sore is too sore, and what do you do if you’re there?

What happens when you’re sore?

We know, instinctively, what muscle soreness is: the ache and heaviness we feel after a difficult workout; the physical sensation that we’ve pushed our muscles too far. The burn is a side effect of the tears muscles undergo after they’re placed under stress with load and repetition.

There are two different kinds: acute and delayed-onset. While different, both are generally caused by this sort of inflammation. Lucky and vigilant lifters might only feel sore once in a while; beginners will have to overcome serious bouts of it as their bodies adjust to volume and weight.

But while soreness can be brutal, it’s not exactly pain. It may feel intense, but it shouldn’t feel wrong. Lifters who want to eliminate muscle soreness can gameplan it like they might against former Raptor Kawhi Leonard, aiming more for containment than total defeat.

What causes soreness?

Soreness used to be understood as a side-effect of working out too hard.

Soreness is still not definitively understood

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The old explanation placed lactic acid buildup, which occurs when muscles overexert themselves anaerobically, as its cause. Early scholarship posited that the acid which built up in muscles after tough workouts remained, made them ache, and functioned as a signal for the body to rest.

It’s since been disproven. Lactic acid leaves the body in minutes, and studies suggest that exercise type may be what’s tied to soreness. But soreness is still not definitively understood. It’s due, roughly, to a number of factors, but its specifics are murky.

Current science paints muscle soreness as a complicated set of inputs, dancing together. Muscle stress can cause inflammation — but beyond that it’s hazy. Eccentric exercise movements and lifting serious weight have been shown to cause soreness, by stretching muscles, and placing them under load, respectively.

Acute versus delayed onset muscle soreness

About the two types: acute soreness is the immediate kind, which we feel when we start a new program or lift after a layoff. It occurs right away and is caused by muscle fatigue or a lactic acid buildup. (If it’s the former, it should disappear within a few minutes.)

A big stretch from Arnold.

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Acute soreness can also pop up in newly activated muscles over the course of a lifting program. A lifter fixing their posterior chain — waking up their dead glutes and hamstrings with good mornings and glute bridges — may be sore right away after an exercise as those body parts wake up, take on more of a load, and get stressed. Acute soreness can come and go right away, or last for several hours. If it lasts longer than a day, you have issues. Eating correctly, sleeping enough, and hydrating can help keep some symptoms at bay. The repeated bout effect — recurring exposure to the exercise — can help prevent soreness from happening again.

“DOMS is a rite of passage for lifters.”

DOMS — delayed onset muscle soreness — is the second kind. It’s much cooler than acute soreness because it lasts longer and is linked to leg workouts. DOMS often occurs after squatting, long runs, or running downhill. Unlike acute soreness, it’s not felt until a couple of days or a few hours after the workout and can last up to 96 hours. It can feel pretty bad.

Scientifically, the delay and its symptoms remain a bit of a mystery. Researchers have found DOMS is more pronounced after eccentric workouts and among lifters doing an exercise for the first time. NSAIDs — non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen) — help curtail discomfort, and aerobic activity has been found to aid in recovery. Warmups haven’t been proven to necessarily help a lifter feel less sore, but some lifters feel that they do. Jogging has been shown to help. One study has shown caffeine helps with DOMS, and others demonstrate that omega-3 fatty acids, taurine, and BCAAs work too.

DOMS is a rite of passage for lifters, but while the delayed glory of long-lasting leg pain can feel like concrete proof of gains, it hasn’t exactly been proven. DOMS does not mean muscle growth is inevitable; it’s more a variation of soreness with a complex series of inputs. Unless you’re squatting three times your body weight, or are at the very beginning of your lifting path, constant soreness isn’t a cause of growth, but correlated to it.

Even then, elite lifters know their bodies, and how to recover, and good introductory programs progress volume and weight at a slow enough pace so as to not punish beginners.

How to manage your soreness

Occasional soreness is inevitable, but it shouldn’t be constant, and it shouldn’t get in the way of workouts.

Both acute and delayed soreness can be mitigated to manageable, pesky levels of “I guess I’ll go lift” if lifters prioritize recovery as much as their workouts. What can help?

Proper warmups, myofascial release — massages, foam rolling, etc. — active recovery, and Epsom baths have been shown to make a difference. Science-backed supplements (particularly vitamins C, E, and magnesium), if they’re not already in your diet, are another idea: they help break down the free radicals that have been linked to soreness.

Soreness’ vague, constant presence has also led to a cottage industry of supplements that are said to stave off muscle aches, pesky pains, and pulls, some of which are pretty helpful, some of which are mostly unproven.

Kettlebell swings can leave the body flushed, but not sore.

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But to be frank, the very basics — a maintenance diet or better, with adequate protein and carbs, and plenty of sleep — are, anecdotally, the required first step. Feeding your muscles with protein and carbs, and anabolizing them under the covers should help keep soreness from becoming a feature.

Soreness can make muscles feel like they’re really been worked, but skipping workouts because of that soreness is not a good idea because rest can undo that progress.

Lifters can work through their soreness slowly or quickly. Lighter workouts and long walks, or a jog, can “flush out” sore muscles and get the blood flowing again, which makes for an easier transition to under the bar. Another way is just to ignore it, and lift anyways. (The eternal caveat here is to listen to your body more closely than you listen to this column.) With enough active recovery measures, it’s not the worst option.

Concentric work helps too. Exercises like prowler rows contract muscles, build strength, and don’t cause soreness the next day. Smart powerlifting writers, such Emevas at Mythical Strength and Jim Wendler, suggest prowler exercises be baked into lifting programs for those reasons. Concentric deadlifts and kettlebell swings are helpful too. These exercises leave the body flushed, but not sore, and function sort of like hangover-free vodka.

Soreness is a tradeoff, the occasional expense that comes with completing regular workouts. It separates different levels of lifting: beginners will be sore for a while as they start pushing their bodies, and elite lifters may feel the same way as they edge to, or stay on, the limit. Soreness can visit, or dominate, depending on how integral recovery, diet, and conditioning work is in a program.

Which can be annoying: none of these tasks are as fun as getting under the bar. Tracking every meal, every night’s sleep, every stretch, every vitamin taken is work. It gets old. But no lifter spends more time in the gym than outside it. Good habits buy leeway and keep the bad kind of pain to a minimum.

LEG DAY OBSERVER is an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column, and a home for all things Leg Day. Due to the complicated nature of the human body, these columns are meant to be taken as introductory prompts for further research and not as directives. Read past editions of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.

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