Soreness and Notebooks

Image: Travis Miller

I started weight lifting 1.5 months ago. I go to a gym 2 times a week (1 with a trainer and 1 by myself). And I feel delayed muscle pain for up to 3–4 days after exercising. I’ve googled whether it’s normal and more important of there is any way to make my muscles hurt less or for less days and it’s confusing how some sites tell that it’s OK and others swear it’s definitely not. My trainer says its OK too. But it troubles me that it takes so long. Could you advice if it is a usual thing or not and is there any way to help my poor muscles heal sooner? — Alexandra

Delayed onset muscle soreness! DOMS! If you are struggling to sit down, stand up, go up stairs, or raise your arms above your head 1–3 days after working out, welcome to DOMS. It is ok to work out with DOMS; some sources suggest exercising can even help your DOMS. In my experience, getting the sore muscles warm and moving provides at least some temporary relief. You shouldn’t try to work out if you are injured — for instance, you pulled or strained something — but that’s a different kind of pain than DOMS. Soreness is normal, particularly if you are new-ish to a sport, but it should not go on intensely for weeks and weeks.

This could be a lot of things, but to start with the information you gave: your body will adapt pretty slowly to anything you’re trying to do if you’re only trying to do it twice a week. One move might be to add a third day, at least, if you’re aiming to get stronger. If you are avoiding working out more BECAUSE you’re sore, I know it’s counterintuitive, but doing it a little bit more will help push you through this stage, which I think you’re prolonging by not doing enough. To exaggerate this, imagine if you had to push a boulder 300 feet once a year. You could do it, but you’d be very sore every year for a few days, because your body is not adapted to it. It’s like learning a language — if you practice only once or twice a week, it will take you much longer to get comfortable than if you’re doing it every day or at least several times a week. There’s diminishing returns on more than a few days a week (and you need your rest, so don’t work out every day). Being used to a workout doesn’t mean soreness will never happen again, but if it does it shouldn’t last longer than two days.

That said, there are a number of other things that can affect recovery that you didn’t mention, so I can’t be sure how you’re handling them. Sleep, food, and water are all part of a proper recovery cycle, and particularly when your form of exercise is intense, any one of these things being off can trigger extra soreness. If you are not eating enough, even by a couple hundred calories, that can be enough to make you more sore the next day. To see how much you should be eating, calculate your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure). Particularly with lifting, you can’t just expect to eat whatever and see results. Same with water — you may even need more than the recommended 8 daily glasses. Sleep should be 7–9 hours.

If you do all that and you’re STILL sore, you may be trying to do too much in the gym. Aim for quality, not quantity. A good lifting session should be, in fact, a lot of resting between sets. If you’re throwing a lot of other stuff in there, like high intensity intervals, stop. Maybe at some point you can add that stuff in, but give yourself a chance to adapt. Disproportionate soreness — for instance, if your lower back is extremely sore for days after deadlift day, but none of the rest of you is — can result from bad form. If this is the case, tell your trainer. If your trainer tells you that’s ok and not to worry, find a new trainer, probably.

In the immediate term, to deal with soreness, stretch and foam roll yourself. A foam roller is the best $12 you can spend, if everything else in your life is on point and you’re somehow still sore a lot. It happens! But mysterious, prolonged, intractable soreness is extremely rare; it’s very likely one of the things above is the culprit.

Can you please address how to plan a lifting session and how to track what amount of weight you are able to lift so you can see your gains? I rarely see people writing anything down! Is there a recommended little notebook or iPhone app or something?

Thank you! — Anna

Lots of people don’t write anything down because they’re not trying to seriously make progress. Which is fine! Some people, men mainly, can go do whatever and as long as their body is making movements they will have some semblance of a physique. But those people are not going to the gym to get stronger, they are just bro-ing down.

For tracking weights, personally I use Google Sheets — I can set up all the templates on my computer and then look at it on my phone at the gym. I use a sheet with space for my weights, reps, sets, and notes, and I fill in what I accomplished versus what I meant to do. If you do Stronglifts, their app can track your workouts. Oneset and Strong are other options, but the drop down menus and fields in apps can be kind of restrictive.

If all else fails, just use any kind of notebook. The standard is a composition book, per trainer and fitness expert Mark Rippetoe, because they are cheap and if you write everything in columns, you can see 4–6 workouts across a page spread. I’ve seen dudes with real name-brand Moleskines at the gym, so that neither of us can forget we are in Brooklyn, so you can use whatever. Write down the date, what exercise you did, how much weight, and how many sets and reps you completed. Notebooks are good too because you can add little notes about how you were feeling that day and how you felt at the end, like a real diary.

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