Should You Train a Sore Muscle? The Debate Continues

woman complaining of a sore shoulderAs I write this latest blog entry, I find myself grimacing with every movement I make – why? Because I have delivered myself a nice dose of DOMS this week. Anyone who has ever exercised or exerted themselves in a manner they are not accustomed to is familiar with that debilitating feeling left in the involved muscles for many days following. In fact, as a trainer, I have felt my ears burning as a result of the suffering I’ve imposed upon many a trainee over the years. Well, at least I take my own medicine and now feel compelled to share some of my thoughts; since that’s all I can do as my body is utterly useless today.

Let me start by explaining what “DOMS” stands for, for those who aren’t familiar. DOMS is the acronym for “delayed onset muscle soreness” and is the pain or discomfort often felt 24 to 72 hours after exercising. It generally subsides within 2 to 3 days.

DOMS typically causes stiffness, swelling, strength loss, and pain in the muscles. The exact cause or mechanism is unknown, though most studies suggest that it is caused by the breakdown of muscular fibres. Whatever the root cause, I can tell you that the more de-conditioned you are to a particular activity, the more pronounced your soreness will be. This why people who first start an exercise program or are new to weight training typically exhibit high levels of DOMS for up to several days post exercise.

If they were under the guidance of competent supervision this effect could have been minimized, unfortunately many people end up very sore and are turned off exercise forever. There are also those who are pain seekers; individuals who equate high levels of stiffness and physical agitation with achieving an effective workout – “No Pain No Gain” right? So, whether you embrace the pain or avoid it, everyone wants to know one thing – should I train a sore muscle?

Like most topics in health and fitness, this is a contentious issue amongst trainers and exercise enthusiasts alike. I’ll present some common views for and against, then offer my own two cents which, as always, will be firmly grounded by logic and common sense.

Reasons to train a sore muscle:

Proponents of this protocol will be quick to cite studies claiming that complete metabolic recovery occurs after 48 hours so why wait and potentially lose valuable training time. They also believe that the body is a very simple “stimulus-response” system, capable of sending more resources where more resources are perceived as being needed, thus it will eventually adapt to this harsh environment yielding a more profound training effect. Another popular belief is that through exercise you will flush recovery aiding nutrients to the damaged muscles, thereby increasing recovery.

Reasons NOT to train a sore muscle:

This is more of a traditionalist protocol and why programs training the muscles 1-2x/week are the dominant choice on the gym floor. It tends to make sense and the path most people will naturally follow. Proponents of this method believe that the body not only needs time to recover but also for repair, which can take a lot longer. If you are in a perpetual state of breakdown, stagnation through over training will not be far behind.

These are just a few arguments for either side. Where do I stand? Well, 20 years of experience in the fitness world and 35 years of wisdom leads me to believe everything in life falls somewhere in the middle so I say – it depends. I am always bemused when I read blogs and articles from “fitness experts” that tell you to train through soreness. What does that mean? How much soreness and what type? What kind of training is being done? What level of conditioning is the trainee at? These black and white answers are completely useless. I guess most people just need to be told what to do. Most people are so out of touch with their own body that they live there entire life without knowing what they are truly capable of. They need a guru to lead the way and, like sheep, they will follow. You see, exercise is always a delicate balance between what you force your body to do and what it will tolerate. You can only push it so far.

The only way to train a muscle every 24-48 hours is with a short, low volume approach. This will certainly allow for less soreness and is fine for beginners. But what about intermediate and advanced who require less frequency and more volume and variety in their training? Many things must be considered when deciding whether to train a sore muscle, but remember to use common sense. If it hurts to train it, and this affects your lifting proficiency, you greatly increase your chance of injury. If the soreness is mild enough not to do this, then try it and evaluate for yourself. Just remember, if you abuse the muscle, the body can shut down if it perceives you are exceeding its recuperative abilities. You may find yourself sick and exhausted – try training through that!

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Craig Simms
Craig Simms is a personal trainer and weight loss coach in Vancouver, B.C. Craig has been a fitness leader for over 11 years and has amassed over 15,000 hours of personal training experience in that span. He specializes in personalized weight management programs.
Craig Simms
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