When I first started lifting weights, I was absolutely crippled by muscle soreness. People cringed when they saw me try to sit in a chair. I loved it. I was sick and tired of being skinny, and I thought the muscle soreness was a sign that my muscles were growing. But was that crippling muscle soreness a good thing?
A couple of months later, my soreness had faded away to almost nothing. I could sit down in a chair without everyone in the room grimacing. I could even hold myself upright in it. I started to feel less like a burning puddle of oil, more like a human being. It was awful.
My gains had started to slow down as well, and I was convinced that my waning muscle growth was connected to my fading muscle soreness. Was my fading muscle soreness causing my plateau?
Muscle soreness is intimately connected to muscle growth, but most of us have no idea how it works, making the whole process that much more confusing. So in this article let’s go over a few of the more common muscle soreness questions that we get:
- Should you work out if you’re still feeling sore?
- What’s the link between muscle soreness and muscle growth?
- Can muscle soreness interfere with muscle growth?
- What can you do to reduce muscle soreness?
- Can you build muscle without becoming sore?
- What if a specific muscle isn’t getting sore?
- What if your joints or tendons are getting store?
- What if your lower back is sore?
- What is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)?
- Does more muscle soreness mean more muscle growth?
- Should you work out if your muscles are still sore?
- Is muscle soreness a sign of muscle growth?
- If your workouts aren’t making you sore, can you still grow?
- What if a specific muscle isn’t getting sore?
- How to deal with the pain of muscle soreness
- What about sore tendons and joints?
- What if you have a sore lower back after deadlifting?
- Key Takeaways
What is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)?
Delayed onset muscle soreness is the soreness caused by lifting weights. It typically peaks 24–72 hours after lifting weights.
When you challenge your muscles with a workout they aren’t prepared for, you cause small-scale damage (microtrauma) to your muscle fibres. Your immune response will then slowly kick into gear, sending in blood and nutrients to repair the damage (inflammation).
The soreness process peaks 24–72 hours after your workout, causing your muscles to feel tender, stiff, and sore (study). The good news is that your muscles will often adapt by growing back bigger and stronger than they were before.
It’s worth noting that lowering a weight causes more damage to your muscles than lifting it. This means that if you focus on just the lifting portion (the concentric), as is done in Olympic lifting, then you won’t be causing much muscle damage, and so you won’t feel very sore afterwards.
However, if you emphasize the lowering portion of the lift (the eccentric), such as learning how to do chin-ups by jumping up to the bar and then slowly lowering yourself down, then you’ll cause quite a lot of muscle damage and soreness.
You shouldn’t base your style of training around muscle soreness. Instead, if your goal is bulking up, then you’ll want to use a proper lifting tempo for muscle growth, which will involve lifting explosively, accelerating the weight through the range of motion, and then lowering the weight down under control.
If the weight is light (8–20 reps), then you’ll be able to blast through reps fairly quickly, which won’t cause much soreness. But if the weight is heavy (4–6 reps), it’s going to be much harder to accelerate, and then when you lower it back down, you might need to do it quite slowly in order to maintain control, which is more likely to cause muscle soreness.
A good hypertrophy training program that’s designed to stimulate muscle growth will emphasize both the concentric and eccentric parts of the lift, and will prioritize the 6–12 rep range. As a result, it will probably make you pretty sore.
Let’s talk about what that muscle soreness means and how you can manage it.
Does more muscle soreness mean more muscle growth?
Beginners can grow extremely quickly due to a phenomenon called newbie gains. Beginners also experience the most muscle soreness. This correlation often leads people to assume that more muscle soreness means more muscle growth.
However, that assumption is wrong. In fact, the opposite is true. The more damage you cause, the more resources need to be invested in muscle repair. We aren’t interested in muscle repair, we’re interested in muscle growth. This is an important distinction to make because there’s some research showing that causing more muscle damage means that more resources will be invested in muscle repair, fewer into muscle growth.
Besides, excessive damage and soreness drastically extend the recovery process, preventing you from stimulating a new wave of muscle growth.
Lifting weights doesn’t just make us stronger, it also makes us tougher. This toughness allows us to handle weights without sustaining as much damage. However, new lifters haven’t developed any of this toughness yet, making them incredibly vulnerable to muscle soreness.
As a result, it’s usually better to ease into lifting slowly, stimulating an optimal amount of muscle growth while minimizing the amount of muscle damage. This reduces soreness and speeds up muscle growth. Some soreness is to be expected, but if your soreness is absolutely crippling, then that’s probably a sign that you need to adjust your lifting routine.
Michael C Zourdos, PhD, recommends beginning each training phase with some intentionally easier training. Enough to cause maximal muscle growth, but not so much that we cause excessive muscle damage. A recent study lends support to this idea, showing that you can protect yourself from the stress of a harder workout by doing easier workouts beforehand.
In the Bony to Beastly Bulking Program, we do this by starting each phase with something called a deload week. These deload weeks have just two sets per exercise, and we recommend stopping each set two reps shy of failure. This frees up more time and energy to learn the new lifts, and it also reduces the amount of muscle damage you sustain, resulting in less muscle soreness and more muscle growth.
Then, as you get deeper into your workout routine, you’ll develop more toughness, and you’ll thus be able to handle longer and more challenging workouts. This means that a good workout routine should start off fairly easy and then get progressively harder, keeping up with the toughness you’re developing, and always challenging your muscles just enough to provoke growth without causing excessive damage.
What’s interesting is that this toughness applies to the specific muscles being trained, but also to our entire bodies. If you build up a strong squat, for example, your legs will gain the most toughness, but your entire body will grow tougher, giving you the ability to withstand more stress without becoming sore or fatigued. This is why you’ll see advanced lifters being able to handle absolutely monstrous workouts. They’ll take sets to failure, use cheat reps, do drop sets, and all kinds of insanity that would wreck the routine of a beginner or intermediate lifter.
Should you work out if your muscles are still sore?
To build muscle, you need to stimulate your muscles by lifting weights, repair the damage you’ve caused, and then adapt by adding extra muscle mass. This process takes around 48 hours, at which point you can head back to the gym to stimulate a new round of growth. That’s why many good beginner/intermediate lifting programs will look something like this.
- Monday: Full-body workout
- Tuesday: Rest
- Wednesday: Full-body workout
- Thursday: Rest
- Friday: Full-body workout
- Saturday: Rest
- Sunday: More rest (Why? We’ll cover that below.)
Muscle soreness peaks 24–72 hour after working out… and you have a workout scheduled every 48 hours. This means that if you have a typical recovery timeline, you should expect to be going to be heading to the gym while your soreness is at its very worst.
That’s odd, right? If soreness is linked to damage, why would we want to lift weights while our muscles are the most damaged? But that’s not the case. Muscle damage is the highest right after you finish your workout. It’s highest before the repair process begins. This is also when you’ll experience the greatest loss of strength.
Muscle soreness, on the other hand, lags behind. In fact, by the time your muscle soreness is peaking, your strength is likely back (study). Furthermore, stimulating a new wave of muscle growth doesn’t seem to harm recovery (study), so lifting while sore doesn’t seem to cause any issues.
How to lift with sore muscles. Even if you’re still feeling sore, you’re probably strong enough to stimulate a new wave of growth. The obvious problem with training while sore is that it hurts. A less obvious problem is that soreness makes your muscles stiffer, which can make it harder to do the lifts properly. You might find it harder to set up for a deadlift, sink deep into a squat, and bring the barbell down to your chest during a bench press. If you’re a beginner, your mobility and technique might still be pretty limited, making this an even bigger issue. The last thing we want to do is have you hobbling through a workout, practicing poor lifting technique and risking injury.
The best way to prepare a sore muscle for heavy lifting is to do some dynamic warm-ups and then some light warm-up sets. That will get some blood flowing into the area, “warming it up,” which will reduce your soreness, reduce your stiffness, and thus reduce your risk of injury (study, study). By the time you finish your warm-up sets, your mobility should be restored, and you’ll probably feel ready to lift heavy.
What if you’re still sore after warming up? Soreness is fairly subjective. Everyone has a different pain threshold (the point at which pain is felt) and a different pain tolerance (the amount of pain someone can bear), so the best way to figure out if you’re ready to lift weights again is to use something more objective: strength.
Do some dynamic warm-ups, do some light warm-up sets, and then get under the bar to attempt a working set. If you’re a beginner, you should fully expect to be able to outlift yourself every workout even if you’re sore. Some of that new strength will come from improved lifting technique (practice), some of it will come from improvements in coordination (neural gains), and some of it will come from gaining extra muscle mass. You’ve got three types of adaptation on your side, so always fight to set a new personal record.
If you’re stronger, great. Finish your workout and keep doing what you’re doing.
If your strength is similar to before, that’s still alright. The fact that you’ve regained your strength shows that you’ve recovered enough to stimulate a new wave of muscle growth. Just make sure that the other aspects of your bulking routine are on point: enough calories to gain weight, enough protein to build muscle, and plenty of sleep. We want to make sure that next workout you succeed in gaining strength.
If you’re weaker than you were last time, that’s a sign that your muscles aren’t ready yet. They’re still too damaged. If it’s not just discomfort, but also an inability to perform the lift properly—with good technique and good strength—then your muscles haven’t recovered enough for heavy lifting. I’d recommend doing some light sets for every exercise in your routine to get some blood flowing into the muscles.
This impromptu light workout is called “active recovery,” and if your soreness is impairing your workout performance, this is far better than simply resting. It will not only speed up your recovery from the previous workout, but it will also toughen your muscles in preparation for the next workout (study).
Even if your entire workout is just warm-up sets, count the workout as complete and continue on with your workout program as planned. Make an effort to eat more calories, more protein, and get more sleep. Perhaps by the following week, you’ll be a little tougher and the workout will go as planned. If not, you probably need to adjust your workout routine.
Is muscle soreness a sign of muscle growth?
Soreness can be a sign of muscle growth, but it depends. Let’s imagine that you go jogging. That’s certainly going to make your muscles sore, but it’s not going to cause muscle growth. Endurance training causes endurance adaptations. This proves that soreness doesn’t always correlate with growth.
To be fair, most people know that jogging won’t stimulate muscle growth, but there are still some common mistakes that beginners make. For example, if you use shorter rest times between sets, beginning the next set while your heart rate is still high, then you might “fail” your next set because you run out of steam before your muscles get close enough to failure.
This workout is going to stress your cardiovascular system more than your muscles. That might make you plenty sore, and cardio is certainly good for your health, but it won’t be very good for stimulating muscle growth. This is why if you have the specific goal of building muscle, you shouldn’t just “lift weights” or “work out,” you should follow a specific bulking program.
To drive this point home, let’s use the example of novice lifters who dive into strength training, hoping that it will help them build bigger muscles. Some strength training programs, such as Starting Strength and Stronglifts, are fairly popular with beginners who are looking to build muscle. However, those workout programs (which are designed to promote strength gains) are misaligned with our goal (which is to build more muscle mass).
In these dedicated strength training programs, every set is under six reps, putting them squarely in the neurological adaptation side of the lifting spectrum (meta-analysis). These workouts are going to make you plenty sore, but they’re going to do a better job of stimulating neural adaptations than muscle growth. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll still gain some size—about half as much—but you’ll become “strong for your size” instead of becoming “big and strong.”
Gaining strength instead of size isn’t good or bad, it just depends on what your goals are.
For the purposes of this article I’m assuming that your main priority is to become big and strong—to gain strength as a byproduct of gaining size, not to gain size as a byproduct of gaining strength. This will allow you to grow about twice as fast while still gaining quite a lot of functional strength.
Anyway, this is all to say that many types of training can cause muscle soreness, making it a poor indicator of whether you’ve stimulated muscle growth. If your program has more emphasis on endurance, cardio, or strength, the soreness might indicate stimulation of whole separate type of adaptation. In order to stimulate muscle growth, you need to apply the correct type of stimulation.
If your workouts aren’t making you sore, can you still grow?
Yes, you can still build muscle even if you aren’t sore… kinda. As you get deeper into your bulk, you’ll be gaining size, strength and toughness.
This toughness is called the repeated bout effect (RBE), and there are a few ways to break through it. One way is to load up more weight on the bar, but that only works for so long. Gaining strength means that you’ll be able to lift heavier, yes, but you gain toughness more quickly than you gain strength, so even progressively overloading your muscles with heavier weights won’t be enough to overcome your growing toughness.
Eventually, you’ll run into a situation like this: you aren’t strong enough to add more weight to the bar, but you’re so tough that if you load up the same amount of weight, it won’t stress your muscles. This is a plateau. No good.
This makes sense, of course. And in a way, it’s a good thing. Toughness is a protective measure. Your body shouldn’t build a system so strong that it breaks itself. With a good bulking program, your bones, your connective tissues, and your muscles will all gain toughness more quickly than you can gain size or strength. So in order to continue provoking more muscle growth, you’ll need to gradually do more and more work in the gym. On the bright side, your increasingly robust body will be able to tolerate those longer workouts without issue.
The good news is that this is a known issue with many good solutions, and these solutions can be layered on top of one another to ensure steady muscle growth. This manipulation of training variables over the course of a program is called periodization, which has proven to significantly boost short-term and long-term muscle growth (study).
Adding weight to the bar every workout is called linear progression (LP). It can work well for beginners at first, but even then it’s not optimal, and it will quickly result in a plateau. We can improve upon this with other types of periodization: adding volume, adding variety, etc.
For example, instead of adding extra weight to the bar, you can do an extra set. So if you did two sets of bench press per workout last week, add in a third set this week. This extra stress will stimulate extra muscle growth. And again, this works for a while, but once you’re doing 5–6 sets per exercise and your workouts are taking two hours to complete, we need something else, such as varying the lifts and rep ranges.
Over time, you’ll build up an overall toughness, but much of your toughness will be specific to a certain exercise and rep range. If you switch from a lighter dumbbell bench press to a heavier barbell bench press, for example, then your muscles will be far more sensitive to this new stimulus. That means we can start back over at two sets, both preventing excessive muscle damage during that first week, and also giving you a chance to fully recover from the intense 5-set week you’ve just finished.
That gives us a periodized chest routine that looks something like this:
- Week 1: 2 sets of dumbbell bench on Monday and Friday, push-ups on Wednesday
- Week 2: 3 sets of dumbbell bench on Monday and Friday, push-ups on Wednesday
- Week 3: 4 sets of dumbbell bench on Monday and Friday, push-ups on Wednesday
- Week 4: 4 sets of dumbbell bench on Monday and Friday, push-ups on Wednesday
- Week 5: 5 sets of dumbbell bench on Monday and Friday, push-ups on Wednesday
- New phase
- Week 1: 2 sets of barbell bench on Monday and Friday, incline bench on Wednesday
(In this example, we’re also leaving four days before doing the same exercise again. By doing a different variation in the middle, there’s less of a chance of soreness interfering with our performance. Slotting that extra chest exercise in the middle is an opportunity to stimulate some extra growth before benching again, improving our chances of setting a new bench press personal record.)
(It’s also important that you don’t have too much variety in your program. You don’t want to “confuse” your muscles. If your body is confused about what stress it needs to adapt to, it won’t know how to adapt. We want to deliberately provoke a specific adaptation until your growing toughness starts to limit your strength and size gains. Only then should you switch the variables to provoke a different type of adaptation.)
So the main takeaway here is that if your workouts aren’t making you sore anymore, you need to find a way to break through the toughness that you’ve developed. And the cool thing is that as you cycle these variables, gradually increasing the weight, the sets, and adapting to a wide variety of lifts, you’re going to stimulate a wider variety of muscle fibres, become strong in a wider variety of movements, and gain strength in a wider variety of rep ranges. You’re going to develop bigger, fuller, more versatile muscles.
What if a specific muscle isn’t getting sore?
How do you know if you have a problem? If some of your muscles are getting sore but a specific muscle isn’t, as you may have feared, this can be a sign that you aren’t stimulating it properly. For example, let’s say that you’ve been doing the bench press but you’re only feeling sore in your shoulders and triceps. This could be a sign that you aren’t bringing your chest close enough to failure to stimulate muscle growth. In this case, if we don’t find a way to stimulate your chest, your chest is going to lag behind your other muscles.
However, don’t expect your muscles to all feel equally sore. For example, this study shows that your shoulders aren’t as prone to muscle soreness as your legs, meaning that if you wake up after doing a full-body workout and feel far more soreness in your legs than in your shoulders, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s an imbalance in your training.
If a muscle isn’t feeling sore two days after a workout, what I’d recommend is that you poke and prod a little bit, looking for any traces of tenderness. If there’s even the tiniest bit of soreness when you massage the muscle, I wouldn’t worry about it. The degree of soreness isn’t linked to the degree of muscle growth anyway. It’s only when you don’t experience any soreness in a muscle that I’d try to give it some extra love.
What should you do if a muscle isn’t getting sore? The first thing you can do is build redundancies into your workout routine. For example, we don’t just rely on the bench press to stimulate your chest, we follow it up with some sort of pec isolation exercise, such as a pec fly. We also use a variety of other chest exercises, such as push-ups and pullovers.
You can also look into your lifting technique. Perhaps your grip is too narrow on the bench press, or you aren’t benching with a sufficient arch, or you aren’t clenching your shoulder blades down into your back pockets. A lack of soreness in your chest might be a sign that you should double-check your technique. There’s some genetic diversity here, though, so that might not completely solve the issue. That’s where isolation exercises can really help. (Here’s our program for guys with stubborn or lagging chests.)
How to deal with the pain of muscle soreness
Feeling sore can be a real bother. With a proper workout routine, it shouldn’t be too bad, but it’s common for beginners to overdo it a bit in their first couple weeks of lifting. It’s also fairly common for guys to come back from a vacation, jump back into their lifting routine, and absolutely annihilate themselves. So what should you do if you’re being murdered by muscle soreness?
First of all, avoid taking anti-inflammatory pills such as Advil or Aspirin. If you take enough medication to reduce your muscle soreness, you’ll also be taking enough to blunt your muscle growth. After all, the soreness is connected to the recovery process. Inflammation is your body attempting to heal and adapt. We don’t want to dampen that effect, we want to enhance it. (For more on this, check out our article on the role of inflammation in building muscle.)
Instead of trying to reduce inflammation, we want to do the opposite. We want to increase blood flow to the area. You could do this with a massage or by using a sauna, but a more effective way is to do some warm-ups followed by some light exercise. This will pump blood through your sore muscles, speeding up recovery, and also reducing muscle soreness. This is another reason why scheduling your workouts right in your moments of peak soreness can be a benefit: it gets rid of the soreness!
What about sore tendons and joints?
As long as muscle soreness isn’t crippling, it’s often a good thing. But what about soreness in, say, your tendons? Or what about soreness in your knees or shoulder joints? First of all, it’s important to understand that lifting, especially if you’re lifting in lower rep ranges, is going to put quite a lot of stress on everything. Your bones, tendons, and even your heart are going to be stressed by heavy lifting. And again, just like your muscles, they’ll grow stronger, they’ll grow tougher, and they’ll even grow a little bit bigger. This is usually a good thing, but there’s a caveat to that.
There’s nothing wrong with stressing your bones, tendons, joints, and all manner of connective tissues, but if you’ve stressed them so much that you’re feeling soreness in them, it’s probably a sign that you’ve taken things too far. One of the first symptoms of your lifting program being too intense is that you start to notice sore tendons and cranky joints. You don’t just feel sore, you feel worn down, you feel old.
The reason this systemic soreness slowly sneaks up on you is that it gradually accumulates over time. Muscles will usually recover within a couple of days, but it takes far longer for these other areas of your body to repair and grow.
So if you keep training hard week after week, it’s possible that your muscles are fully recovering, but you’re accumulating damage elsewhere. Some of these repairs are supposed to take place during deload weeks (which you should have every 4–10 weeks), but some will only recover when you ease back on your lifting in general, such as taking a couple of months every year where you stay within your comfort zone in the gym.
As a beginner, I would simply recommend that you follow a good lifting program. If you do that, you’ll never need to worry about managing all of these different recovery curves.
What if you have a sore lower back after deadlifting?
If you look at this image above, you can see why lower back soreness can be so scary. The red areas are the muscles, the white areas are the tendons. As you can see, the lower back (blue circle) is covered with tendons, not muscles. So if that area becomes sore or inflamed, it’s not the beneficial muscle soreness, it’s the scarier tendon soreness… or is it?
To understand lower back soreness, we need to peel back the top a layer of musculature so that we can see what’s going on underneath, like so:
As you can see… the situation still looks kind of scary. The muscles go a little further down, sure, but it’s still just tendons covering your lower back. Worse still, those tendons might not feel all that sore, making it feel like the soreness is coming from even deeper—from around your spine itself. To figure out why that is, we need to peel back another layer:
Here we see a final layer of spinal erectors, buried deep under several layers of tendons, and butting up against your spine. As these muscles heal and grow, they’re going to go through a period of inflammation and soreness. This is why you’re so prone to feeling muscle soreness in your lower back after heavy lifting sessions, especially if you’ve been doing a lot of exercises that will help bulk up your back, such as front squats, conventional deadlifts, chin-ups, and rows.
Most soreness in your lower back muscles is good, but you do need to be mindful of your lower back when lifting. The lower back is a common area for injuries, and those injuries often take up to eighteen months to fully recover from. The healing process is painful, physiotherapy can be expensive, and it can really interfere with your bulking routine.
You’d probably still be able to lift weights with a lower back injury—and that’s often necessary in order to experience a full recovery—but you’d need to be more careful with your squats, deadlifts, and rows. Far better to play it safe and avoid injuring your lower back in the first place.
The good news is that it’s quite rare to get a back injury while following a good hypertrophy program. Lower back injuries are more common in sedentary people going about their day-to-day lives as they haphazardly pick things up with weak back muscles and poor lifting technique. After all, the muscles that support their lower backs are weak, their connective tissues are fragile, and they never learned how to lift things properly.
Stressing your back in the gym is something to approach with care, but not something to avoid. What you want to do in the gym is lift carefully and deliberately, making your back progressively stronger and tougher. Lifting weights should reduce your risk of a lower back injury by helping you avoid injury in your day-to-day life, both because you’ll have learned better lifting technique, and also because your lower back will be built up like a fortress.
How should you build a stronger, tougher lower back? With most muscles, the best way to make them bigger and stronger is to lift a weight explosively through a large range of motion and then lower it back down under control. This approach is good for most of your muscles, and even for most of the muscles that support your spine, such as your lats and glutes.
Your lats can be trained with rows and chins-ups, and if you notice that they’re lagging behind your biceps, you can add in some pullovers, lat pulldowns and pull-ups. Your glutes can be trained with squats and deadlifts, and if they’re lagging behind your thighs, you can add in some glute bridges and hip thrusts. With all of these lifts, you want to bring the muscles through a large range of motion in order to get maximal muscle growth.
However, your spinal erectors should be trained differently. If you contract them under load, yes, they’ll grow, but arching and rounding spine under load is going to cause the connective tissues between your spinal discs to become softer. This will make your spine more flexible, which is fine when doing things like yoga, but it’s also going to increase your risk of injury when lifting things.
In order to lift heavy things safely, you want the connective tissues between your discs to adapt by growing firmer. To do this, you need to train your spinal erector muscles isometrically. Set your back in a neutral position and hold it there under load. When you squat and deadlift, use the muscles in your back to keep your spine from rounding or arching. This is going to build it up stronger.
The cool thing about building up your spinal erectors is that they’re big muscles that run up your entire back. The bigger you make them, the thicker your torso will grow. Lats will make your back wider when seen from the back, but your spinal erectors will make your back thicker when seen from the side. If you’re like I was, and you look like a lollipop when you turn sideways, then it’s the squats, deadlifts, and bent-over rows that are going to really beef you up.
Anyway, after doing squats, deadlifts and bent-over rows, expect your lower back muscles to feel tired, and a couple of days later, expect them to feel sore. And that soreness will come along with inflammation, which can put pressure on your spine, which can feel… weird. But your spinal erectors have to go through that same healing and growth process as your other muscles, so it’s not something that we should avoid. In fact, of all the adaptations you make from lifting, I would argue that bulking up your back is the most important.
However, while rare, it is possible to injure your lower back while lifting. This often happens when people use so much weight that it causes their lower back to round or when they recklessly jerk the weight up off the ground. Keep in mind that your lifting technique doesn’t need to be perfect, though. “Neutral spine” is a range. A little bit of arching or rounding is generally considered safe, so if your back deviates a little bit while lifting, there’s no need to panic. Just keep practicing, and over time your coordination will improve.
If you’re feeling pain in your lower back while lifting, though, we do want to be mindful of it. If you leave your hand on a hot stove, you’ll get a burn. But if you yank your hand away as soon as you first feel pain, you can probably save yourself from injury, or at least reduce the severity of that injury.
The same principle often applies when lifting weights. Pain in the gym often warns of a future injury, so if you experience pain in your lower back, that can indeed be a sign to ease back on what you’re doing—to be more careful moving forward. (The same is true with other areas of your body. If you feel sharp pains in your shoulders while doing the bench press, stop. Fix the problem. Don’t just grind away at it. That’s how people injure their shoulders.)
How can you tell the difference between muscle soreness and an impending lower back injury? Soreness is a dull ache and tenderness that peaks 24–72 hours after lifting weights. If you feel soreness in your lower back muscles, that’s perfectly fine. Getting a “pump” or a “burn” in your back muscles is also fine. Your back muscles are muscles, so they’re going to burn and get sore.
It’s often the sharper, shooting pains that warn of an impending injury. If you’re experiencing pain that feels completely different from what you’ve been feeling in the other areas of your body, I’d recommend seeing a physiotherapist to get it checked out. On the other hand, if it feels more like muscle soreness, that’s probably a good thing. With proper rest and nutrition, the muscles that support your lower back should grow back stronger and tougher.
What if your lower back is always sore? If your lower back muscles remain sore forever, not recovering as your other muscles do, that could be a sign that you’re not giving them adequate rest. This is usually a postural issue stemming from your hips being tilted too far forward, causing your lower back muscles to be perpetually flexing and tight. If your lower back muscles are always tight, then they’ll never get a chance to rest and recover.
The good news is that a balanced lifting program should also help you improve your posture. After all, posture is almost always rooted in weakness. In this case, developing stronger abs and glutes that hold your hips in the proper position will do a great job of giving your lower back muscles some rest. This should resolve over time.
How should you deal with a fatigued lower back? Another problem with a sore lower back is that you use your lower back for everything. During my first few weeks of over-zealous lifting, my spinal erectors were so sore and tired that I couldn’t even sit up straight in a chair. In our article on inflammation, we explained the problem with trying to reduce inflammation with anti-inflammatory drugs, ice, cold baths, and even antioxidant supplements, so what I’d recommend instead is to get some blood flowing in the area.
If your sore back is interfering with your day-to-day life or lifting, try doing some cat/camels (tutorial video) when you wake up in the morning, and then again whenever you notice your lower back feeling especially sore or stiff. Once the blood starts flowing, the area should feel a bit fresher. You can do this before your workouts as well.
As you get used to the stresses of deadlifting, your lower back won’t just grow stronger, it will also grow tougher. It won’t get as sore or fatigued. You’ll be able to deadlift several hundred pounds and then go about your day like normal. That’s one of the best benefits of lifting weights: you’ll build a tough body that’s capable of lifting heavy things without becoming overly stressed, fatigued or injured.
- More soreness isn’t always better. Soreness can be a sign that you’re challenging your muscles, which is good. If you’re following a good bulking program, that could be a sign that you’re stimulating muscle growth. However, more soreness isn’t always better. After all, the more muscle damage you cause, the more resources need to be invested in repairing that damage, leaving fewer resources available for building bigger muscles. Excessive damage will also extend the recovery process, interfering with your workouts, and preventing you from stimulating a new wave of muscle growth. Some soreness is often good, but crippling soreness is usually bad.
- Beginners should be especially wary of causing excessive muscle damage. If you’re new to lifting weights, you should gradually ramp up your training over the course of a few weeks. This will reduce muscle damage, reduce soreness, and allow you to build more muscle. This doesn’t necessarily mean lifting lighter, but it probably means stopping each set a couple of reps shy of failure as well as keeping your workouts fairly short.
- When workouts stop making you sore, periodize your training. Muscles adapt to a bulking routine by growing bigger, stronger, and tougher. As your muscles become tougher, your workouts won’t cause as much muscle damage or soreness. This is why your workout routine should be ramping up in intensity from week to week to prevent your growth from plateauing. After a few weeks of ramping up the intensity, drop the intensity back down and begin the process again with different lifts and rep ranges.
- It’s okay to lift even if you’re still sore. In fact, it’s good to lift while sore. A bulking workout will stimulate around 48 hours of growth, and muscle soreness peaks between 24–72 hours. This means that if you want to keep your body steadily growing, you’ll need to be training while sore. The good news is that lifting while sore is safe, it’s great for building muscle, and it even reduces muscle soreness.
- If a muscle isn’t getting sore, make sure you’re stimulating it properly. If a specific muscle group isn’t experiencing any soreness, that might be a sign that your workout isn’t stimulating it stressing it enough to provoke muscle growth. You might want to consider adjusting your technique or adding in some isolation exercises. For example, if doing the bench press doesn’t stimulate any soreness in your chest muscles, try benching with a wider grip or adding some pec flyes into your routine.
- It’s normal to have a sore, tired lower back after doing deadlifts, squats, and bent-over rows. Your back is supported by a number of different muscles, including your lats and glutes, but also your spinal erectors. These spinal erectors run up the entire length of your spine, and when they get sore, you’ll feel it in your lower back. These are beefy muscles with massive growth potential, and they’ll get sore after a challenging workout, so it’s totally normal to have a sore lower back after lifting weights. This isn’t a reason to panic. Keep in mind that lifting weights will make you tougher, and having tough back muscles, bones, and tendons is going to help keep your back healthy.
Alright, that does it for now. I really hope this helps.
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