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Charlotte NC Personal Trainer Answers: Q & A: How Sore Should I Be After I Workout?

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Q: How sore should I be after I workout?  Is it bad to be too sore?  Is it bad to not be sore at all?

A: You should often know that you did something somewhere, it shouldn’t be debilitating, and sometimes you might have surprise of bonus soreness somewhere(s).  Who doesn’t appreciate a nice bonus*?

*I can hear our psychiatrist client asking me, a Charlotte NC personal trainer, if anyone has ever said I was a sadist.

woman thinking about being sore Charlotte NC personal trainer

Why do we get sore?  What does it mean?

A century ago scientists said it was lactic acid*, but that theory was debunked in the 1940’s.  After that scientists believed we got sore (DOMS if you like fancy acronyms) from microtears in our muscles and such.  With more powerful microscopes we have realized that this is not true because you can find microtears in people who are sore and who aren’t sore, as well as find plenty of people who are sore without any microtears.

*Lactic acid doesn’t make your muscles burn, nor does it stick around to make your muscles sore.  Lactic acid (lactate) is made by your muscles when they’re working very hard.  They split a molecule of blood sugar (glucose) in half and then in half again and you get a bunch of energy + some lactates.  Our bodies don’t waste resources, so that lactate goes to the liver to be reassembled back into what it started out as, which was glucose (blood sugar).  Your muscles burn the recycled glucose, and the cycle continues.  Lactate doesn’t stick around, so it can’t make you sore.

The most plausible explanation of how we get sore is, in a word, fluid.  Specifically, micro swelling pushing on your nerve endings.  When you work a muscle, your body sends extra blood to the area to supply extra energy and oxygen, and to carry waste products away.  Some of this fluid will linger.  How long it lingers depends on how much you move.  Sitting down makes it really hard for the blood to leave your lower body, so the swelling* lasts much longer. 

*Swelling and inflammation have gotten a bad rap.  Acute, or short acting inflammation is the first step in how your body heals anything and how it defeats any infection.  Turning this down makes you more comfortable right now, but at the cost of slower/incomplete healing and giving the infection an advantage over your immune system.  Yes, we do have diseases related to long-lasting, low grade inflammation, but that is an entirely different can of worms.

After a workout the work of getting stronger, fitter, etc. is done by your immune system.  When you workout you’re literally training your immune system, as well as making it vigilant for intruders and triggering the replacement of old immune cells with new ones.  As your immune system starts it’s work it brings a lot of fluid to the are – it needs extra fluid to remove waste products, and to bring in raw materials to do the upgrades.  The increased fluid puts pressure on the local never endings and we get soreness.

So, how sore should I be? Soreness goes down with consistency of training because your brain gets accustomed a certain level of pressure on those nerve endings – things we experience multiple times per week cease to trigger an “alarm” in your brain.  In other words, the occasional micro swelling becomes normal, so you don’t notice much.

If you have ever had a cortisone shot or a vaccine in your shoulder you have experienced an amplified version of the pain and soreness caused by an unusually large mass of fluid.  It hurts like hell, and you can take the edge off with a few minutes of movement.

How sore should your muscles be?

This is like asking “how long is a piece of string?”  It depends on the string, the person, the day, and even the muscle.  How sore you are will depend primarily on 3 things:


o   The harder you work the more frequently you’ll have high levels of soreness. 

o   At the very same time, the more often you have high levels of soreness the less you will notice low and medium levels of soreness. 

o   The opposite is true: if you’re often holding back, when you do push yourself it might feel like you did something wrong.

Step count

o   The higher your step count the less sore you will be, and the faster any soreness you do have will dissipate. 

o   Obviously, the converse is also true – move less and hurt more. 

o   This is because sitting down makes it hard for the blood and lymph to enter and exit your lower body, and the rhythmic activity of walking makes it easy for that fluid to come and go as needed.

Consistency or regularity

o   The more irregular your training schedule the more you will feel very sore because your immune system (which does the work of adapting your muscles, etc.) gets out of practice really fast.

o   If you are a road warrior (travel a lot for work), doing a little something on the road will help reduce “peak soreness” when you are home.

Bottom Line

Being sore is neither a problem, nor the goal.  Work hard.  Be consistent.  Get your steps in.

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