I just got back into training, and I’m amazed (No Depressed) at how sore I am. And I didn’t even think I was lifting that heavy! What happened and what can I do to prevent it?

Congrats for getting back into it. This is really a common occurrence, and unfortunately not a very clear cut answer. Studies have shown that strength is able to be sustained for quite some time after not training (1), but growth and endurance are lost more quickly. Unfortunately, I don’t have many magical things to say. It’s entirely unfair how long it takes you to build up your strength and endurance only to be removed from training for several months (or maybe longer) to make you feel like you are stepping into a gym for the very first time.

The best antidote against this is…you guessed it…to train regularly. I know, I know, you’re thinking, “thank you Captain Obvious”, but I do have some numbers to go along with this. I figure if I can’t overwhelm you with something enlightening to say, I’ll give you some research findings to illustrate the point. An excellent review of the literature outlines the changes often seen in trained individuals after not exercising for some time (2). In particular, this research review outlined the changes seen inside our muscle tissue relative to the types of muscle fibers, strength and endurance. As one would expect, the extent to which changes occur relate strongly to how long the detraining lasts.

Interestingly, no changes in the muscle fiber characteristics (type I, type IIa and type IIb/x) were seen in twelve strength-trained men after fourteen days (1) while valuable force-producing properties of the muscle were lost in an elite bodybuilder after seven months of no training (3). Similarly, a 6% reduction in the percentage of muscle fibers which produce high amounts of force and grow significantly occurred after an elite bodybuilder stopped training for slightly over a year (4). In this respect, a study completed by Hakkinen reported a reduction in the proportion of these fibers as well along with a reduced muscle mass after eight weeks of training stoppage (5). As I mentioned previously regarding strength, 14 days of no training only reduced maximal strength upper- and lower-body strength levels by a combined 1.3%, but when extended to eight weeks, reductions of 11.6% and 12% were seen for the squat and leg extension, respectively (5).

OK, so that’s the bad news. Unfortunately, there is a little more. If you’ve taken off several weeks to months, you need to take it easy working your way back in to the swing of things or you will get quite sore and stiff. This response is called delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS for short and often persists for up to 72 or 96 h (6). There are basically three ways to avoid it or at least minimize it: 1) don’t do anything intense or stressful like resistance training (true, but somewhat of a joke because everyone needs to resistance train), 2) resistance train religiously and 3) when beginning a program after weeks to months off, progress very slowly with both the amount of weight you are using and the number of sets and reps you complete. Studies have attempted to investigate means to reduce these sensations, but the only tried and true to minimize soreness is to train regularly. This so called ‘repeated bout effect’ is associated with improvements in strength, soreness, damage, etc. after performing a similar second (and a third…) bout of similar exercise after proper amounts of rest (7).

Nutritionally, not much is available to help alleviate the soreness with the exception of HMB, although these results are mixed (8-10). Two of these studies provided HMB for several days before and several days after a damaging bout of exercise and found that HMB supplementation for this purpose has very little application (8-9) while a third study performed with untrained people and a damage-inducing exercise bout can improve symptoms of soreness (10). In addition, a study published in 2010 suggested that daily usage of the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) may help to improve soreness (11). Even creatine monohydrate, the wonder supplement which seems to be effective for almost anything else, has failed to have a positive impact of muscle soreness (12).

In summary, soreness is somewhat inevitable, especially when long breaks occur between exercise sessions. From an exercise standpoint, the best approach is to plan your workouts out and give yourself a two-week ‘orientation’ period to allow you muscle to get slowly adapted to the resistance. Don’t go off of how strong you feel, because as I mentioned before, strength levels typically hold around the longest, so you very could feel very strong during the workout, but end up getting extremely sore. There is nothing worse than it hurting to sit down on anything or lifting your arms to grab something out of a cabinet. Sure, I subscribed to the thought process when I was young that, “If you’re not getting sore, you’re not working hard enough”. Easy to say and deal with as a college kid when all I had to was go to class 15 hours a week and work a little bit. I trained regularly as a result and don’t forget I was in my early 20s.

A common guideline employed to monitor recovery is to not increase volume by more than 10-15% per week. Volume related to resistance training is often calculated to be sets x reps x amount of weight you complete. So if you do 10 reps x 200 on your first set, 10 reps x 210 on your second set and 10 reps x 215 on your third set, your volume was 6,250 and 10% of this is 625, which means you shouldn’t exceed around 6,900 for your next workout. Not a perfect science, but it is an approach that can work well for those who diligently scribble everything associated with their workouts. 

Even better, don’t worry about volume, nutrition and just find time to go train. You won’t be as sore, you’ll be a happier person and by doing this you’ll be more likely to look and feel the way you want.