Should I Be This Sore?

Image: Aidan Jones via Flickr

Dear Swole Woman,

Firstly, I want to thank you for taking the time to write your column. It is so nice to read about lifting and fitness and not have it be taken over by crazy formula to work out optimum body mass or protein intake.

But, I do need help. I’ve been going to a great gym for about 6 months, and I’ve kind of hit a wall. The people at the gym are great and really encouraging, but I don’t feel I’m making any progress and I’m finding it a real grind to go. I know training isn’t meant to be easy, but sometimes (particularly after squats) I get such bad DOMS it makes me wonder why I’m putting myself through it. I’ve tried switching my moves up, I’ve tried focussing on seeing results in certain body parts, and I’ve tried being satisfied with small increases in my lifting, but then I hit the day after leg day when I’m convinced I’ll never sit on a toilet comfortably ever again and I find myself convincing myself to skip some days. How do I push through that? Or do I not push through, and is my body telling me to stop?

Thank you.

A non-swole (yet, but trying) woman

Let me be clear:


There appears to be a common misconception that very bad soreness is caused just by the fact of working out. It is not. The bad news is that, barring some medical issue, you’ve been causing yourself a lot of pain for no reason. The good news is that this is stupid fixable.

Soreness comes from the gap between, essentially, what you should be doing and what you are doing in terms of letting your body recover.

Effort expended – recovery = soreness

Soreness is caused not just by your overreach in working out, but also the things you don’t do to let your body properly recover from that overreach—drinking enough water, eating enough food, resting your body.

If you work out and don’t eat the rest of the day, and possibly sleep badly because you are hungry, you will wake up the next day in very great pain.

If you do the same workout and eat properly and then have an excellent night’s sleep thanks to light and short stretching session you did before bed, the next day you will most likely not be sore at all.

1000 workout units – 1000 recovery units = 0 soreness.

1 billion workout units – 0 recovery units = 1 billion soreness.

Do you see how this works?

Some forms of working out are not very intense, so recovery doesn’t need to be a big priority. For light yoga and walking, for instance, you probably don’t need to prioritize recovery. (Light yoga and walking essentially ARE recovery, for a mobile person.) For something in the threshold of running, you will notice some difference in soreness if you eat and sleep and stretch vs not.

Lifting weights, while it may not feel much harder in the moment than, say, running, is very taxing on your body. Which is great! You can get an excellent workout by seemingly moving not very much. But doing something as intense as lifting weights prompts your body to attempt a fairly rapid adaptation to meet the new stresses you are showing it. Strengthening does not actually happen from working out—working out literally tears your muscles up, and it’s the recovery process that rebuilds them better than they were before. Your body wants to grow for you! When you make it lift a weight it is saying, “yas queen let’s do this, I’m breaking down to build myself up, what doesn’t kill me makes me STRONGER, STAND A LITTLE TALLER DOESN’T ME—”

But when you just break your muscles down and don’t give them the tools to build themselves back up (food, water, rest), they just try to pick up the pieces as best they can. It’s like leaving a wounded soldier out in the woods to try and make splints out of sticks and bandages out of leaves and squirrels when you could just, like, take them to a hospital. I ask you, which scenario will let that soldier heal faster and better?

And yes, if you are not recovering properly, you will plateau (i.e., stop being able to lift heavier weights). It’s all part of the same thing.

Now—properly, this next section would be a flowchart, but I don’t have the tools for that so use your imaginations. The next time you are so sore you cannot sit down on a toilet, ask yourself these questions:

Am I drinking enough water, like 8 glasses a day or even more?

Maybe? Drink more. Drink a very large glass or two in the morning. Carry a water bottle.

Yes. Next q—

Am I eating enough?

Maybe to not really. Eat more. Try a daily energy expenditure calculator. Eat what it tells you, do NOT use the stats for trying to lose weight for now (unless a doctor/dietitian/other professional has said otherwise). Use MyFitnessPal to keep track of food; you are probably eating less than you realize. Eat 0.8-1 gram of protein per pound bodyweight or so. If you can’t measure stuff because of triggers, try adding a couple snacks during the day (apple and peanut butter, crackers and cheese, vegetables and cottage cheese, ants on a log, toast and jam, etc) and an extra serving of protein (a palm-size piece of meat, a scoop of powder, a couple-few eggs). If you are still sore after a week of this, add a little more. If you are avoiding carbs, stop. If you are avoiding fats, stop. I know this is much easier said than done in a lot of cases but if you needed a reason and this does it for you, here it is.

Yes. Next q—

Am I sleeping enough?

Maybe to not really—you need 7-9 hours, my child. Go to bed. Stretch before bed, it will help you sleep.

Yes. Next q—

Am I working out too much?

Maybe—is twice a day seven times a week too much? Well yes, yes it is. Per above, rest is part of recovery. If you never let your body rest, it can’t do the work of building itself back up and getting ready for the next challenge. Eventually you will be just slogging through workout after workout for no good reason.

Maybe—I’m totally untrained and went to the gym for 5 hours and now the only thing that hurts more than not moving is moving. Here, too, we have The Gap between effort and recovery. You want to meet your activity stress with recovery goodness, but you can only manage so much. It’s hard to know as a newb what is too much or not enough, but this is a wonderful opportunity to learn about yourself. It’s also a good reason to track your workouts, using an app or a notebook or whatever, so you can get to know what is really beyond in terms of your ability to recover. 5 hours is too much. As a beginner, two hours is too much. Even an hour might be too much. Start a little slower.

No, definitely not, it’s only once or MAYBE twice a week—actually, this is almost but not quite as bad as working out too much. If you’re doing something as intense as lifting weights, your body can’t adapt to activity this infrequent. Lifting more will actually make you less sore. Yes, really.

No, it’s 3-6 times per week, with quality rest on my off days? GOOD. Great.

Ok, from here, if you are doing all of the above, you recovery habits are good.

All this said, it is my observation that women and people who struggle with the basic tenets of good recovery are mostly struggling with eating enough. Sometimes they are “eating enough” but, actually, not eating enough. I can’t stress enough that there is a biological caloric threshold below which your body just won’t respond to lifting weights and will effectively just be mad at your for confusing it. It will show this anger by hurting.

It is not a good idea to try and diet through your early days of lifting (unless you have very high body fat or other better instructions from a doctor, and even then you need to go easy on yourself). This is magical thinking and you can’t fight the way biology works. You can even experience weird bloating or weight gain, in the long term, by not eating enough and over-stressing yourself. Please give your body a shot at letting this work and eat an adequate amount of food.

One more q—

How is your form? You might be overstressing some muscles by failing to use others.

I’m not sure, I’ve never even seen myself lift—If you don’t have someone you can trust to check you, take a video of yourself. Post the video to a forum like r/xxfitness. Check out some videos of good squats, deadlifts, benches, rows, overhead presses.

My form is perfect because my trainer who says my knees can’t go past my toes when I squat says so—mmmm you might want to post that form check video anyway.

My form is good enough according to a video I’ve seen, and/or a jury of my peers, and/or experienced coach or trainer: great!

From here I don’t really have much more to offer you; if you’re still getting debilitating soreness week in and week out, and you feel SURE you’re doing all the above for yourself, it might be time to consult some professionals.

Now this is all not to say soreness should never happen! It happens. I still get a little sore with some frequency, and I kind of like it because it makes me feel alive in the world. This is good soreness, or at least fine soreness—I could maybe have recovered better, or not gone quite so hard in my lifts, but I will live. Most importantly, this variety of soreness will be almost completely healed by the next time I go to work out those muscles in a couple of days, because I will have given myself the time and space and resources to recover. If you are so sore you can’t sit or stand and someone just touching you hurts and it is without end, please please please do more to take care of yourself.


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