Soreness and Active Recovery

Delayed-onset muscle soreness (“DOMS”) is the worst – just when you think you’ve pushed through a hard workout and are feeling great, you wake up the next morning with that tight, knotty feeling in your muscles, or in other words, feeling like this:


Unfortunately, if you’re like me, then you remember you have a job that pays for your gym membership and organic food and you pull yourself out of bed. 🙂

DOMS is, in my opinion, not necessarily the most terrible thing in the world.  I don’t get sore too often anymore, but when I do, it is usually a moderate amount of tightness that signals to me I’ve hit my muscle in a new way (or in the case of pecs, that I’m hitting a muscle group hard for the first time in a long while.)  You definitely don’t want to be so sore that you can’t move, are super-sore/in pain to the touch, or feel like you have to skip a workout.  But a mild amount of soreness after a particularly hard workout (especially with a new exercise or body part) is ok.  Basically, that feeling is caused by the existence of small tears in your muscle fibers (and inflammation of those fibers), which your body will repair to form stronger muscles.

Contrary to popular belief, soreness has nothing to do with lactic acid — your muscles produce lactic acid from your glucose stores [i.e., as fuel for your workout] during your workout, but most of the lactic acid you produce is flushed out of your system within an hour of the end of your workout.  So whether or not you feel sore the next day has nothing to do with whether you pushed past your lactic threshold or could have stretched more* or done more to cool down after your workout.  If you push too hard and put too great a strain on your muscles, you will cause “damage” -i.e., too many small tears to your muscles — and you’ll be severely sore, no matter what you do to “recover.”

*In fact, studies have shown that stretching before or after a workout really does nothing to improve recovery time or reduce injury.  That’s not to say there is no benefit to stretching – flexibility is a worthy goal in and of itself in my opinion – but it is not going to impact soreness or recovery.

For me, the real question is — what can I do to aid my body in repairing itself after a hard workout?

(1) Rest and Active Recovery:  I took the morning after chest day off from the gym because I knew I was doing an hour and a half cycle in SOHO Friday night with Rachel Buschert ( !!! 🙂 !!!).  This gave my muscles nearly 36 hours of rest, followed by a workout that (while super challenging) did not put strain on any muscle group that felt sore or tight.

In fact, my go-to recovery move for minor/moderate DOMS is more exercise.  It sounds counter-intuitive, but a recovery workout the day after a super intense workout noticeably speeds my recovery time.  I’ve experimented with a lot of techniques, and for me, the best options include some form of cardio (to increase circulation and warm my muscles up), followed by dynamic stretching and foam rolling. (I.e., something like Rachel’s cycle class or a run, followed by body weight exercises and foam rolling for the muscles that feel sore).

Other options include using light, easy weight to practice form.  For instance, on Saturday, we worked on a deeper range of motion for leg moves, in preparation for a more intense Sunday leg lift.  We practiced:

  • Around the world lunges (@25lb dumbbells) – Perform a reverse lunge with your right leg by extending behind your right foot behind you and lowering your right knee to the ground, step out to the side with your right foot and perform a side lunge, and then step forward with your right foot and lower your left knee to the ground for a forward lunge.  Repeat all three moves on your left side, and repeat the “circle” for five rounds.

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  • Goblet Squats (@25lbs) – the focus here was to drop your thighs/glutes as low as possible with the weight in front of your chest, working to keep weight evenly distributed through your foot and keeping your torso as upright over your hips as possible.  If you do not have a lot of flexibility in your hips, a wider stance with toes turned slightly out may help you to get into a deeper squat.


  • Wall Squats: To improve the “uprightness” of the torso while still dropping into a deep squat, we then did 45 sec wall squats.  The key is to press your back into the wall to train yourself to keep your back straight and over your hips.


  • Thrusters (@50lbs): Hold the barbell in front of of you, which hands about shoulder width apart and with the bar resting just below your collarbone.  Squat down and raise the bar into an overhead press as you stand back up.

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  • Deadlift to High Pull (@ 50lbs): Grab the bar with a narrow grip.  With your back flat, lower the bar toward your feet, then lift up into a high pull (with elbows raised near your ears).

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  • Kettlebell Snatch: To practice, we began with some one arm swings first.  The motion is the same when doing a snatch.  The only difference is that, for a snatch, when the kettlebell reaches your shoulder, rotate your hand and punch straight up overhead.

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  • Kettlebell High Pulls: Start as you would for a swing, but raise your elbow up while bringing your hand near your armpit.

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  • Kettlebell Oblique Crunches: Lower the kettlebell to the side below your knee, then lift up and “crunch” over to the other side.

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Whenever doing a workout like this, work in about the 40-50% weight range and just work on getting very fluid and comfortable with the movements.

(2) Diet:  The second most important part of recovery is diet – When you fuel properly, your body recovers more quickly.  I think Dr. Mercola nailed the advice in a recent article:

• Consuming a diet high in good fats (50 to 70 percent), moderate in protein, low in carbohydrates, and very low in sugar. (This means ditching your sports drinks, energy drinks and most energy bars).
• Getting adequate essential amino acids, especially leucine.
• Appropriate timing of meals, or intermittent fasting. Exercising in a fasting state can boost muscle growth. The easiest way to accomplish this: Exercise immediately upon arising, followed by a fast-assimilating protein recovery meal 30 minutes afterward.

He also suggests eating ginger, Omega-3s, sulfur-rich foods, cherries, and other anti-inflammatory foods to aid in recovery. Since I have switched to this style of diet, I have noticed I’m much quicker to recover (and I get fatigued way less quickly).


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