5 reasons you’re sore after exercise

If you’ve been training for a while (even just a couple weeks), you’re probably aware of the after effects of your gym activities…

After an intense lifting session, some hard prowler pushes, too many 3-minute rounds in the ring or a marathon training run, your body can often be in agony. Whilst some discomfort is inevitable (especially if starting out with a new training method), it is never necessary to feel like you need a field medic.

The soreness is known as DOMS which stands for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. As the name suggests, it generally takes a few hours (12-36) before it sets in, but it can be quite uncomfortable. DOMS is caused by a number of factors – small tears in muscle fibres, a buildup of metabolic waste (excess lactate, for example), blood pooling and localised inflammation are the main causes, but each can be mediated to some degree by the things we do after the gym.

Some simple mistakes are commonly made which exacerbate how difficult it is to get out of bed the next day – if you don’t take care of these factors you are leaving a lot of your recovery ability down to chance and are potentially slowing your progress down.

Remember, your gym time is a stimulus for your body to adapt. It merely starts the process. The important things start happening when you leave – and your recovery needs to be as much a priority as your exercise regimen, if not more so!

Here are the 5 most common stumbling blocks, and what to do about them!

1) Insufficient nutrition

The big one! You want to perform at your best, eat like it! (even when trying to lose body fat)

Protein. It’s not just for building biceps.

Your  intake needs to be high enough to allow for optimal metabolic function, as well as to repair and build muscle fibers that you damage during training (this includes you, ladies!). To ensure you get enough, aim for around 2.3-3.1g protein per kilo of lean body mass (higher intakes for severe diets or the very lean)(1).

You also require carbohydrates to recover and replace used muscle glycogen, which is your body’s store of energy – this varies enormously between individuals, so experiment and find your sweet spot (generally, the higher you can “get away with”, the better). Now I’m not saying either of these things really need to be consumed IMMEDIATELY post workout; your total daily intake is the most important thing, but it’s a good idea to consume SOMETHING protein rich at some point near your session.

2) Insufficient sleep

Sleeping not only helps your central nervous system recover, but it is during these hours that your body performs the vast amount of its repairing/building of tissue. Aim for around 6-8 hours per night as often as possible. Tips to improve sleep include:

– Switch off all electrical devices and make your room as dark as possible.
– Stop watching TV an hour before bed. The blue light interferes with melatonin levels which interrupts sleep patterns.
– Take a hot shower before bed and open a window, the subsequent “cooling down” of your body helps sleep.
– Make sure Zinc isn’t deficient in your diet.
– Find a friend and do some extra cardio…

3) Excessive volume, or eccentric reps

Exaggerated eccencentric training (lowering the weights real slowly) has become popular, with the idea being that it increases time under tension and improves hypertrophy – unfortunately this is false. Many recent studies have been published(2,3,4) which indicate that this practice does not, in fact, improve hypertrophy. What it DOES do, is increase muscle cell microtearing, causing DOMS.

After a surprisingly low amount of sets, you will have stimulated the maximal amount of growth you possibly can during the session. After that, all you are doing is causing acute muscular trauma which hampers recovery, and burning calories. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not an advocate of Mentzer-style “one set to failure” training for most people and it is well documented that multiple sets are superior for hypertrophy due to increased metabolic stress amongst other factors – but once you have done five sets of bench and 3 sets of flyes close to failure, doing 4 sets of dumbell press, 3 sets of machine press and some push-ups to round off a “chest day” like a 70’s professional bodybuilder is just overkill.

Volume goes far beyond one session, so start to think of volume on a weekly basis rather than daily and reap the benefits. Which brings me to my next point…

4) Inadequate frequency

Those training each muscle once per week are far more likely to experience DOMS. This is multi factorial, but the two main reasons tend to be the compensation for low frequency with excessively high volume (see above), but also simply due to under training. As you train a muscle more frequently, a phenomenon known as “the repeat bound effect” occurs. This effect essentially states that the more often you train a muscle, the more efficient it becomes at recovery.

This is how an Olympic lifter is able to train up to 3x per day 7 days per week and not feel sore!

Keeping weekly volume the same but cutting each session down then hitting a muscle group twice or more is a far more effective approach!

5) Mineral depletion

Finally, during intense training, mineral stores in muscle cells are depleted (chiefly magnesium, calcium, sodium and potassium). Whilst chronic deficiencies in these important minerals are rare in western society, they can acutely develop during periods where physical activity is higher than usual(5). This deficiency can lead to cramps, tightness and spasms amongst other unpleasant symptoms which can hamper subsequent training sessions.

Ensuring a high intake of fruits, vegetables and legumes; as well as dairy if tolerated well and not cutting sodium is a great way to make sure you have what you need. Of course, for prolonged sessions an electrolyte drink is a very wise choice and supplemental transdermal magnesium, zinc and trace elements like those found in TDT Recovery Spray found here (place hyperlink to www.transdermaltechnology.co.uk on the word ‘here’) can be a lifesaver for those really pushing themselves!

A note about the author.

Tom Bainbridge is a strength coach and nutritionist specialising in training and nutrition for beginners and newcomers to a gym environment. He also writes articles for www.transdermaltechnology.co.uk if you’d like to check him out on their blog!


(1) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/24092765/?i=2&from=sport%2C+training
(2) http://www.sweatpit.com/forum/studies/general.adaptation/Phase%20Differential/Farting.pdf
(3) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11606016
(4) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15640387
(5) http://nutrition.highwire.org/content/132/5/930.short

About the Author

"All in or all out" Rachael is a vibrant, no-bullshit-talking Scottish nutrition geek and coach helping women to lose weight without giving up their confidence OR their favourite foods.

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