should muscles be stiff after workout

Should your muscles be stiff after a workout?

The first few weeks back at the gym are the worst. You wake up every morning feeling like you’ve been trampled in your sleep. The saying goes: “no pain, no gain”, and most people believe “if it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t count.” But is this true?

The causes of muscle stiffness

Muscle stiffness is not the result of one single thing. It’s a complex interaction between multiple systems in the body, including:

  • Microtrauma: Tiny little tears in the muscle itself, caused by the excess loading or stress above normal resting levels. This adaptation phase can last up to 72 hours, will stop you from moving freely and make you feel achy. In a sense, you need to cause this controlled micro-damage to your muscles for them to grow and adapt.
  • Chemical burn: All that movement creates a chemical concoction too. This includes waste by-products such as lactic acid and free radicals.
  • Neurology: A third factor could be related to the brain and the nervous system. This means that the nerves themselves could be affected, registering pain simply due to overstimulation and adaptation of the tissues around them. Studies show that as nerves grow and adapt, they can cause growing pains.

How to get rid of muscle stiffness?

When we think of the ecosystem of our bodies, the more sustainable question is not “How do I get rid of stiffness?”, but rather: “What is the optimal level of training intensity should I be doing?”.

Intensity, in my mind, will be the biggest determining factor in eliciting the DOM’s response. It has become common culture to push one’s self to the brink of collapse in an exercise class, compete with the person next to you and feel the burn, get sweaty!

This cannot be the only way to train, my goodness, are you looking to ruin yourself? We have to look at both sides of the coin, they go hand in hand, and we can limit the amount of stiff days, focusing more on movement quality and longevity/health.

So instead of just pushing yourself to extremes, pay attention to your entire movement practice and what type of training you are doing. Look out for when you start to fatigue and pay attention to your rest cycles. Some stiffness is normal, but if you are debilitated for 3 days after a session, this could be a sign of overreaching or you are compensating or it’s the wrong type of exercise for you. Lastly, it is not a good thing if you cannot walk properly the day after.

How can stiffness impact your training routine?

The simple answer is, it shouldn’t! You should not be so stiff, that you cannot train the next day. It is good to train outside your comfort zone, ‘loading’ is good for your body and your tissues. This is necessary to keep you strong but there is a tricky balance to maintain, when looking at amounts of good or bad stress.

For example, let’s say you are really stiff from training. It would be advisable that your next session be more focused on recovery and not creating a bigger deficit in your recovery time. In short, if you cannot perform an exercise, drill or task and you feel that your body cannot perform it the same way you did before, because of the stiffness, take the day off.

I hope that your training programme will look at many variables, like mobility, strength, flexibility and recovery. Keep it varied and do the things that make you feel good too! This all comes down to many factors but you have to gauge your own intensity meter.

Here are few givens of when you can experience a bout of the DOMs:

  • New exercise regimen, a change can create new adaptation and something out of the ‘norm’ can cause the DOM effect.
  • Head banging at a rock concert, you don’t walk around all day violently nodding your head. The extreme dose of this will cause a stiff neck the next morning. Rock on!
  • The type of exercise can have a greater or lesser effect: We know the gym workout is one but jumping or bounding (plyometric) in nature elicits a greater load throughout the tissues than normal.
  • Pre or post hydration levels, possible related to the severity of the DOMs effect to exercise.
  • Intensity and duration of the exercise. It’s a matter of going too hard for too long.

Now I’m not saying don’t exercise, far from it! Try not to train, exercise or move, always at the same intensity. In my mind, I want you to move more but in a more sustainable way. There should be the same amount of ‘intensity’ and same time spent recovering.

Just as getting the burn, can’t always be the measure of feeling that something is good or working, maybe your body is telling you to stop. Muscle tension can limit good quality movement, as you need your whole body to create good movement and let’s not drop on the quality but, definitely the quantity.


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