Muscle Soreness: How Sore Is Too Sore? Part 2
Written by Fritz Nugent
We’re back with part 2 of the series muscle soreness: how sore is too sore? If you missed part 1, make sure you go back and give it a read before reading this article!
In part 2 we will discuss real life examples of being “too sore”, and customizing training volume to avoid excessive muscle soreness.
Jumping back in too hard after time off = excessive muscle soreness
There’s a member I check on a few times a month, and I saw them on a Monday working really hard, and had not seen them in the gym in a week. They were doing jumping alternating lunges, and they did all the prescribed reps. I went up to them and suggested they cut down the reps, and they said they’d be fine. But, I checked on them the next day, and they said they were really sore, and they planned to take a few days off before returning.
Let’s analyze what happened:
- This athlete completed too many reps at too high of an intensity
- They got really sore
- Now they have to take another 3-4 days off before they feel ready for training.
They went from a week off to training once, maybe twice that week. The holy grail of three days/week training is still elusive to them.
What if, instead of getting after it hard that first day back (maybe they were punishing themselves for missing the past week, and they want to force their body into submission and health), they instead dosed themselves with less? Now they feel good the next day and could train again, and if they are smart, they’d use the same approach of decreasing both volume and intensity, and again the next day they feel good. They build momentum.
After another day or two, they hit a third training day that week using yet again the same approach. They feel great, their body and mind reward them through increased self-confidence, better dietary choices to support their training, and improved sleep quality. Now the next week they can’t wait to get after it.
This is what I hope our clients experience returning to the gym after a break. I want them to build good habits around exercise, and I would love for them to know how to appropriately dose themselves with training after taking breaks, which is something that we all SHOULD do from time to time. That’s right, taking breaks from training are necessary and beneficial. That’s why knowing how to intelligently return to training is useful!
I sent this client a message after they said they’d take a few days off training: “Any time you are sore or fatigued/tired the next day from training, you did too much. So keep track of how much you can handle while feeling GOOD the next day, and find a way to customize each class to obtain that stimulus.”
I mean this for anyone wishing to get fitter, feel better, and improve general health. Extreme soreness is not helpful and should be completely avoided. Training to feel good is the optimal pathway.
Customizing training volume after a break from training
Our members average three training days per week. Sometimes, people fall off and go a week without training. When they return to the gym, many people wrongly assume that their fitness level is the same as when they left. It could be if they have a large training age and don’t have frequent and large breaks from training, but for the average person, after a week off, you will lose some fitness. When you come back to the gym, you must cut the volume of the training down to reduce soreness.
I recommend starting with at least a 25% reduction in metcon training volume for a few training days after a week off:
- 1 week off: reduce training volume by 25% for about 1 week
- 2 weeks off: reduce training volume by 40-50% for 1 week, and then progress to a 25% reduction for another week
- 3 weeks off: reduce training volume by two thirds for 1 week, then progress to a 40-50% reduction for week two, and then a 25% reduction for week three
That means if the workout specifies 200 reps of various tasks you
- After 1 week off: 150 reps
- After 2 weeks off: 100 reps
- After 3 weeks off: 60-70 reps
If the run is 800 meters, you can cut this distance down by the same percentages, or you can adjust your intensity, or both. More on intensity next.
Customizing training intensity after a break from training
Intensity can also be changed to fit the needs of the client. In CrossFit, intensity has two distinct definitions. One, the percentage of a load from the maximum, and two, how hard someone pushes during the metcon.
After a week off training, dialing back your metcon intensity is a smart move. I would recommend using an RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) scale to help guide your intensity when returning to training after a break. For example:
- After 1 week off: approach metcons for one week at a 6-7 RPE out of 10
- After 2 or more weeks off, approach at a 5-6 RPE
And for percentage of maximum:
- After 1 week off: decrease the percentage by 5-10%
- After 2 weeks off: take 10-15% off the prescribed training percentages
- After 3 weeks off: take 15-20% off the prescribed training percentages
For example, if the workout calls for back squats up to 90% for a single and then a back-off set at 85%:
- After 1 week off, work up to 80% for a single and hit your back-off set at 75%
- After 2 weeks off, work up to 75% for a single and hit your back-off set at 70%
- After 3 weeks off, work up to 70% for a single and hit your back-off set at 65%
I recommend taking the same approach here for progressions similar to how I reintroduced the training volume above. Each subsequent week back into training can be accompanied by a 5-10% increase in intensity.
To summarize, extreme soreness is not a badge of honor, and does not lead to the gains you seek. Instead, seek to progress patiently and steadily towards your goals. This is the way.