How to prevent muscle pain after exercise

13 August 2020 Ewan Birnie
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No pain, no gain.

We hear this time and again as gym-goers talk about what it takes to improve their health and fitness. But how true is this statement?

Does walking down the stairs after a heavy leg day need to be torture if you are to improve? And is the inability to raise your arms above your head for a couple of days a sign of a high-quality workout? And if it is needed to reach your potential, then how can it be managed? Let’s take a look at some simple strategies you can apply to get the most out of your training, prevent muscle pain after exercise and stay injury-free.

Training to failure

It is one of the most common tools used to determine if you are lifting the appropriate weight.  You match your reps to the goal you want to achieve, and make sure the final rep of each set almost doesn’t go up. By the end of all sets for a given exercise, you have nothing left in the tank – not one single rep.

We’ve trained like this for decades, and on the surface, it makes sense. The more work you do and the harder you push, the greater the requirement for the body to adapt and improve to handle the stressor. However, this also means more recovery is needed. If you’re training frequently, this might mean that your next session suffers because you haven’t fully recovered from the previous workout. Evidence shows that adaptations will still occur even if you don’t reach failure. Whilst there will always be a time and place for pushing yourself to your limits, it doesn’t need to happen every time you set foot in the gym. By avoiding failure in some of your exercises or workouts, you will experience less soreness and muscle aches and be fresher for your next training session.

Program ‘key’ days

Identifying one or two days within your training week where you know the session will be tough and you will be pushing yourself to your limits will allow you to manage your recovery and the aches and pains that can go along with a hard session. The best athletes in the world do not go flat out every time they train, so neither should you.

So, what makes a ‘key’ session? This will vary for each person based on factors such as training goals, likes and dislikes and lifestyle. As a generalisation, your key sessions will be the ones where you work at a higher intensity, have a very high volume of work or those which include big or complex movements requiring high force production.

Once you have identified these sessions, plan around them. It is always a good idea to have a rest day or some active recovery after one of these sessions. You should also consider other lifestyle factors. For example, if you’re always smashed at work on a Monday it is probably best not to place a key training session on this day or either side of it. Remember, exercise is a (good) form of stress, and if not considered alongside other lifestyle factors it can lead to burnout and overtraining.

Sleep to prevent muscle pain – really!

Believe it or not, your performance actually gets worse when you are training. It is when you stop, rest and recover that your body begins to adapt to the training stimulus and the key systems start to change. Most of the key physiological processes associated with improved exercise performance occur when you are sleeping. You can be putting in the hours in the gym but if you’re trying to burn the candle at both ends, you won’t get the results your training deserves if you’re falling short of the recommended 7-9 hours.

Adjust your program on the go

Just because you’ve written down three sets of 12 at 50kg doesn’t mean you need to do it.  Listen to your body. The same session seven days apart can feel entirely different depending on everything that is going on in your life. If the first set is a struggle and you only reach 10 reps, drop the intensity slightly for the next set and hit your rep target. And vice versa, if you’re feeling great and you hit 15 reps in the first set, up the weight so you hit your rep target in the next set. Exercise prescription doesn’t get much more personalised than this – you are making tiny tweaks to each set to suit how you’re feeling at that particular moment, not what you planned six weeks ago at the start of your program.

Know your current abilities

The dreaded DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) is always worst when you start a new program or make a return to training after a lengthy lay off as the body either hasn’t been exposed to that stimulus before or for a long period of time. What you could lift/run/throw/row/swim three months ago has little relevance to what you can do now.  Recognise that detraining can occur and regress your training appropriately. It does mean the ego will take a bit of a hit, but your body will thank you for it.

Ewan Birnie

Ewan Birnie

Ewan is an experienced fitness educator having taught in the field for 12 years in the UK and Australia, as well as working within the industry for over 16 years.  He is passionate about creating and delivering high quality and current learning experiences to fitness students.  His fitness interests lie in working with young athletes, with a history of employment in sports coaching and strength and conditioning in a variety of sports.  He is also a big believer in creating simple and sustainable exercise solutions for the general population that can have a meaningful impact on health and wellbeing.

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