When you have a sore muscle (or a bunch of them), it can be hard to focus on anything else. This article is primarily targeted at those whose have aching muscles because of weight lifting or strength training, but the procedures I’ll discuss can have benefit for anyone, sore or not, lifter or not.
I believe that movements put us into pain. It makes sense to me that movements can get us back out of pain. I have experienced this for myself, and I believe my clients would agree. There is a distinction to make here: I’m talking about pain, not damage. What I’m going to discuss here can be a method of potentially getting rid of performance-related pain (“it hurts when I do this”) type pain, but with the assumption that you don’t have a bunch of torn muscles or broken vertebrae.
So then: muscle soreness. Is it necessary? Is it a good thing? Should we seek it? Is it an indicator of progress, or of a good workout?
I lift a lot, and I frequently lift between 30,000 and 60,000 pounds in a workout. I also lift 4-6 times a week whenever my schedule will allow it. And yet I rarely have any muscle soreness. This is simply a function of how I lift, and how I have built up to these numbers.
The answer may surprise you: in all of those reps, 99.9% of them were performed without effort. They were easy. I include the 500 lb deadlifts, 10 minute long cycle clean and jerk sessions with Russian kettlebells, and high volume days with power cleans, pullups, and other big movements. In the beginning the volume was low, because I stopped as soon as the movements began feeling difficult. So no, I don’t subscribe to “no pain no gain.” I don’t take back off weeks. I don’t cycle. I don’t deload. I pursue movements that test well and I quit when they feel hard. And the numbers keep going up.
If you feel you are suffering undue or disproportionate muscle aches from lifting, I would suggest testing your movements with biofeedback and seeing if it changes things. here is the test I use, although there are many:
Range of motion muscle testing
My starting premise: something (a movement or exercise) that increases my range of motion is good. Anything that reduces my ROM is not something I want to be doing right then. Also–these movements that test well or poorly change constantly, so I am constantly retesting and changing directions.
The test: I lean forward from the hips to touch my toes. This is not a flexibility or stretching test. In fact, the point where I terminate the toe touch is when going even one mileometer farther would mean that I started stretching. I am simply looking for the first appearance of tension or tightness anywhere in my body. That is where I stop, usually with a tap on my legs, shins, or feet to mark the spot. That is my baseline measure. My starting point.
Then I perform an exercise, unloaded without weight. Let’s take the military press for instance. I act as if I’m holding a barbell, or two dumbbells, or one or two kettlebells, the implement doesn’t matter. Then I perform the press pattern for three or four reps and retest the toe touch. If it results in a deeper toe touch, it is beneficial at that time. If not, it’s not. Meaning, if I tighten up above my baseline measure, this movement is putting the brakes on, not taking them off.
What does this all mean for you and your aching muscles? Nothing if you’re not interested in testing things. But if you want to do some experimenting, this may be a way to make progress and avoid muscle soreness. I lift more frequently than most people I know, I put out less effort, and I make better progress. But no, I do not have any world records or bodybuilding titles, so feel free to ignore all of this.
But I feel good! That’s the only point I really want to convey. I lift hard, I lift tons and tons of weight, but I never feel like I’m being hard on my body.
If you would like to try and avoid muscle soreness caused by lifting, my recommendations are:
- test your lifts
- only pursue movements that test well that session
- Stop a set when a rep feels more challenging than the one preceding it
- Don’t begin again until your ROM has returned
- Stop when it won’t return after a minute or two – then you can either move to a new movement that tests well or be done for the day
I have also had great success dealing with pinched shoulder nerves with this method.
I believe this is the best way for me to lift. We’re all different. Different injury histories, ages, muscle memories, and goals. But for everyone, I believe that the better we can move, the better quality of life we will have. For me, only pursuing movements that test well makes me feel better, think better, move better, and lift weights better than groaning under the prescribed programs from a bodybuilding magazine.
To each his own. If you are more sore than you would like to be, I recommend testing out Gym Movement and biofeedback. It could be the best thing that ever happens to your strength training.
It has been the best thing that has happened to mine.