How Do I Care For My Growing Baby Muscles?

Image: Hernán Piñera

Dear Swole Woman,

I lift casually to support my general form because I need it for my main sport (I do martial arts). I started 3 years ago and a lot of muscle has been developing slowly over that time. In the last year, I’ve noticed that this process is painful and weird. It’s not mere muscle soreness. It feels like growing pains from the slowly increasing muscle mass and from my body trying to adapt to the new structure. The new muscles pull at my joints, some muscles are stronger than others and create weird posture problems, some muscles get shorter and hard and make some movements difficult. In general, a lot of places just hurt and feel like they need work and ease. I have been experimenting with stretching, massages, yoga, foam rolls and what have you. But honestly, I am overwhelmed. I don’t feel very good at this. Is this long term pain something I have to live with? Am I doing something wrong? Or is this part of a process I am just not done with? How do you deal with the pain?


— Maia

Ok, so, here we come to the importance of well-roundedness in fitness, even when you have a priority. Growing muscle is good and fun and a lot of very satisfying effort, but you can’t do it in a vacuum. Short answer: this long-term pain is not something you should live with, but it could be a few different things.

In days of old, when lifting was (sadly, or maybe not, as we’ll soon find) mostly the provenance of men, they drove each other to lift heavier and heavier weights, and to aggressively rest when not lifting; like, to the point of literally not moving a muscle for fear of wasting energy. Stretching or warming up or otherwise trying to care for yourself was for pussies; if you didn’t just walk up to a loaded 500-pound barbell and lift it, you could not be a bro. For many men, this lead to a condition called being “muscle bound,” where your muscles have grown so much but stayed so tight, and maybe unevenly so, they start to yank you out of alignment and make it difficult to move or do lifts with good form.

Between becoming muscle bound and the shitty lifting form traded from man to man from gym to gym, many men eventually became badly injured, tearing their rotator cuffs or labrums in their hips or cartilage in their knees, on and on and on. This lack of care has lead to generations of men who “used” to lift but have been waylaid by a laundry list of seemingly intractable injuries, and now they have lots of time to lie around and drink beer and smugly tell people who lift currently that it’s only a matter of time until they’re too broken to do it anymore. First of all, don’t listen to these people.

Women actually don’t have this problem quite so much as men; they tend to be more mobile and stay more mobile as they grow, maybe in part because they can’t grow as fast. But if you are lifting and and getting stronger and your muscles are growing, even a little, part of taking care of them involves making sure you don’t also get too tight.

We owe some of this ethos, I grudgingly admit, to Crossfit; if you know the word “mobility,” it’s because of Crossfit balancing its zany, overly intense workouts with a focus on stretching and so forth. Crossfitters love this book about mobility.

The basics of “maintaining mobility” involve warming up properly, which may involve static or dynamic stretching, and/or foam rolling, or all three. (Many lifters will try and tell you static stretching will make you weak for a lifting session; this is a common misread of a study whose conclusions do not support that. What this study actually says you will be weaker in the seconds following a static stretch, but not for forever and almost certainly not after you complete a whole warm up. Static stretching is actually fine). It also involves making light movement and mobility part of your recovery, even or especially on your rest days, if you are struggling with staying pain-free, as you say you are.

I’m not sure what your specific problems are, and you sound like you’re taking stabs at this stuff already, but you should really make it a part of your routine. You can try doing a few sun salutations every morning, or coming up with a quick stretch routine that targets your tighter areas. Gentle stretching before bed will also generally help you sleep, not just to fall asleep but to stay asleep through the night.

I am nothing if not a ball of anxiety to the point that I don’t know how I would leave the house if I didn’t have Google to find Yelp reviews so I had some idea of what to expect everywhere I go, and I wake up a lot in the middle of the night. Some things help more than others, but stretching before bed is one of them. Yesterday my back was pretty sore so I got out my yoga mat to have a light lunchtime full-body stretch and foam-roll. I did this for a few minutes, and then it relaxed me so much that — I am not exaggerating or kidding — I just laid down on the mat flat on my back (some call this “corpse” pose) and fell asleep for 20 minutes.

If you’re not even sure where to start, I really like this routine by Alan Thrall; there’s also Starting Stretching or Limber 11. Going to a yoga class once a week might not be the worst thing, or doing some light active recovery like walking, jogging, hiking, biking, rowing (think leisurely, just to get the blood flowing) and THEN stretching. I have been using ROMWOD for a few months, which is a Crossfit thing, mostly because for me it has similar physical effects as the non-athletic stretching-oriented kinds of yoga, and is even somewhat calming, but it doesn’t have all the foofy trappings of chakras etc. that yoga classes/videos usually do; I can take that in small doses, but not every damn day. The cost is worth it to me because of that, and because it takes the work out of figuring out what to do stretching-wise.

Probably the most important thing is not to do this stuff sporadically or only when you feel pain, but to make a habit of it. Consistency is important and the only thing that’s going to effect change here. If this doesn’t help, or it sounds like what you’re already doing, you might need to see a physical therapist to put you on the right track with your specific problems. Physical therapy is not just for acute injury!

Pain like this can also come from muscle imbalances, such as when the front of your body (chest, front delts, biceps) is very strong and the back (traps, rear delts, lats) is very weak; a state like this can actually yank on your shoulders and cause you to round forward all of the time. That’s a more complex issue that, again, a physical therapist or doctor should help diagnose and treat.

Part of the reason I love powerlifting is that it’s a sport of longevity; most of the people who are very good at it have been working at it consistently for years. You can’t get good by burning yourself out, and you can even bench yourself forever if you try to push too hard or take shortcuts. That means listening to your body about what it needs, including rest and sleep, including food, including variety and different kinds of recovery.

Part of getting yourself back in working order may involve taking a break from or scaling back your sport and schedule and focusing on your health. You should be taking regular breaks anyway. If that’s what you need, be honest with yourself! It is so much better to take a step back for a few weeks or months than continuing to push and putting yourself out of the game for years, or forever. Ask yourself if you want to be able to keep doing what you’re doing in the long term. If so, next ask yourself what is the best decision you can make to ensure that, right now.

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