Muscle Soreness: How Sore Is Too Sore? Part 1
Written by Fritz Nugent
Muscle soreness is normal in any training realm. Take a jog after a long period of not running? You’ll feel sore the next day. Pick-up game of basketball once a year? Soreness ensues.
CrossFit is no different. If you are new to CrossFit, you will be sore. But how sore is too sore? And how can you navigate your gym experience to empower yourself to keep showing up? Hopefully this article will help you learn how to do just that.
Should you be proud to be sore?
When I coached Track and Field, my athletes would get some soreness at the beginning of the season, but after the first few weeks, soreness significantly reduced. Their bodies adapted to the stressors, and we followed linear and step progressions to fan the flames of progress, and we changed the stimulus frequently enough to reduce accommodation, but not so great a change to induce extreme soreness. The slight changes from one training block to the next was perceivable by the athlete’s body and could result in some residual soreness, but not so much that the athlete’s next few days of training quality suffered. That’s never the goal. Frequent and high quality training is the pathway to long-term healthy progress.
Some CrossFit gyms have adapted cultures that pride themselves on how sore they can get. Perhaps they assume that soreness is correlated with the gains they seek. I will tell you with certainty that soreness and adaptation to training are not closely correlated. In other words, you can drive significant adaptations to tissues and structures over time while keeping soreness levels low or even nonexistent. In some instances, extreme soreness can actually catabolize muscle, meaning doing too much can cause your muscles to decrease in size.
Muscle soreness scale
When I onboard new members to the gym, I use a 10-point scale to explain soreness. 10 out of 10 sore is along the lines of rhabdomyolysis, a serious and potentially fatal condition where the kidneys are overwhelmed and cannot process all of the tissue damage. If your urine comes out like coca-cola after a workout, go to the ER.
Conversely, a zero out of ten is how your body might feel after a full week off from training. No aches or pains. You can move all of your joints with no sensations of soreness. I will add in here that you can feel this good while training three days a week, but it takes an acute attention to your body’s abilities and following a progressive training program.
After training, most of us fall somewhere in the middle between 0 and 10 soreness, and I explain to our new members that I expect them to be 2-3 out of 10 sore the day after training, or less! If they are more along the lines of 4-6 out of 10, then both of us failed to do our jobs. The client failed to tell me that we were doing too much, or perhaps their ego got the best of them and they really wanted to push themselves that day. And I failed as the coach because I should first take the time to learn the client’s training age, current training status, and any other pertinent information about them before taking them through their initial sessions. This allows me to give them what I hope to be a “perfect” dose of training. Too much, and they are too sore.
Being sore does not equal great workout
While excessive soreness can be a bonding experience and new members might feel like they are joining the club via trial by fire, I don’t like this approach, and never have. Sometimes, people don’t come back after being exposed to too high of a dose of training on day one. And if a member needs to be “sold” that the gym is intense enough for them by the coach smashing them to bits the first day, then that athlete and mindset will become prevalent in your community, and you’ll be dealing with a bunch of burned-out and broken athletes sooner than you think.
Stay tuned for part 2!