Q&A: Soreness and Recovery Time

Question:

I appreciate all the helpful information in your blog. I understand that experiencing soreness is not important as far as a determinant of a successful workout. The question then, is it an indicator of the least amount I should rest before the next workout?

I currently train HIT as taught by Mike Mentzer (3 to 4 exercises per workout, mostly compound movements with roughly 7 days of rest between workouts). I always experience soreness and it persists for a good 4 days. For example I trained legs and torso on Tuesday and my quads/abs are still sore. I would like to train twice a week, but my next workout has deadlifts (so in my mind it seems counterproductive to train before the soreness has gone away). Does this concern have merit or would I be ok to attempt the next workout after 3 – 4  days of rest even if I’m still sore in bodyparts that are involved in the exercises of that workout?

Answer:

You are correct that soreness is not an indicator of exercise or workout effectiveness. Although most people experience some degree of muscular burning during and soreness shortly after exercise it varies considerably between individuals, between muscle groups, and over time.

Likewise, the presence or degree of delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS – usually experienced from two to four days after a workout – is not an indicator of workout recovery. You can experience DOMS and have recovered enough to work out again productively, or you can have little or no muscle soreness at all but still need more rest days. The best way to determine how much recovery time you need between workouts is to keep accurate records on workout charts or in a training journal. Assuming you are training intensely enough, keeping your workouts brief, and getting adequate nutrition and rest you should be making consistent progress. If not you may need to increase recovery time between workouts.

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34 Responses to Q&A: Soreness and Recovery Time

  1. Ernie July 19, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

    Hey drew,
    I have a question for you. I let myself become obese and am working on losing weight and gaining strength. I understand that gaining strength can be difficult while at a calorie deficit but how does that affect workout recovery? Will I need additional recovery time without the needed calories to build muscle or less?
    I have been working out HIT style for about 6 weeks and am seeing modest gains every other workout or so on most exercises.Chest press overhead press seem to be my weakest movements and see very little progress. My goal is to lose about 10 pounds per month(at least until I get closer to my goal weight) and have been very close to that every month. Am I on the right track?

    Thanks!

    • Drew Baye July 30, 2012 at 9:30 am #

      Ernie,

      As long as the calorie deficit isn’t severe and you’re getting adequate rest you shouldn’t need to increase recovery time. Ten pounds of fat loss per month is a reasonable goal for someone starting out with a lot of fat to lose. I’m way behind on writing but I have a new article on the topic that might interest you in draft form right now and ought to have it up later this week.

      • Ernie August 4, 2012 at 9:02 pm #

        Drew,
        Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to reply. I truly appreciate it. I am looking forward to the new article you referred to. One other question if you have time. I work out at our local YMCA which has a pretty complete Nautilus Nitro room. I have been doing a BBS big 5 twice a week plus rotating in the Nautilus ab and Nautilus low back every other workout(each exercise once a week). One of the things I am looking forward to doing when I get back in shape is playing golf again. Would the Nautilus rotary torso be a good exercise to include in my routine with that in mind? Thanks!

        • Drew Baye August 9, 2012 at 6:45 pm #

          Ernie,

          Rotary torso is a good exercise to include but I am not a fan of the Nautilus Nitro rotary torso machine. The style of rotary torso made by Cybex with the pads in front of the shoulders is better. If your gym has one of those or another brand with a similar design I would recommend it over the Nautilus, provided there are not other problems with the machine.

      • Amber October 17, 2012 at 5:17 pm #

        Hi Drew, I have been looking for the article that you mentioned in your comment to Ernie. I have been following a HIT protocol for about a month, and I have read your article from 2008 on fat loss. But any more information that you could provide regarding calorie deficit and fat loss goals while doing HIT would be most usefuly. I’m curious what kind of gains I should be aiming for while consuming 1100-1200 calories with 1 gram of protein per pound of LBM. Any other guidance would be useful as well. I really enjoy your blog and the information you provide. Thank you!

        Amber

        • Drew Baye October 18, 2012 at 9:45 am #

          Amber,

          That article was not completed. When it is it will be posted in the Start Here section under the heading How To Lose Fat.

          How much fat you would lose on 1,100 to 1,200 calories per day would depend on your overall energy expenditure and the make-up of those calories and resulting hormonal environment.

  2. Steven Turner July 25, 2012 at 6:01 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    Recently I have been conducting my own “experiement” on workout recovery changing the amount of days between workouts 1, day rest, 2 day rest etc,. Whilst I can go through the workouts with a high level of effort I have had to reduce the amount of weight or stay with the same weight. If I have at least 4-7 days recovery between workouts I start to progress again. Or most importantly I look forward to the workout and feel so much stronger in the workout itself.

    I think a lot of people don’t understand the importance of “keeping accurate records” for their workout. I think also that many people just go through the motion in their workouts because they have not had enough recovery time. I see this just about every time I go to the gym people just going through the motions.

    Arthur Jones said that once you have been through a “break in period” muscle soreness should be nearly non-existant or minimal soreness.

  3. DD July 26, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

    If I keep try to keep accurate records, such as doing a certain weight for 4 reps (i.e, 80 seconds), I tend to start getting sloppy in my form just so I can lift that weight longer or use a heavier weight for the same number of reps. I seem to get a “better” workout if I just pick a weight that I can lift for somewhere between 1 and 2 minutes and just concentrate on lifting it with the best form I can until I cannot lift it anymore. This way I just concentrate on working the muscle and not on beating my lift from before. Some workouts I use a weight that I can do for about a minute, and other workouts I use a lighter weight that takes more like 2 minutes. I do keep mental notes on how much I lifted before so I know in general I’m increasing over time, but I find it hard to do every workout without sacrificing form. How do you keep accurate records without sacrifices form?

    • Drew Baye July 28, 2012 at 10:02 am #

      DD,

      This is a great question and one that deserves more time than I have to answer at the moment (between clients). I recommend reps and I will post another Q&A this weekend explaining why.

  4. Donnie Hunt July 28, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

    DD,
    I can relate to what you are talking about.

    This makes me think of the value of being able to micro load exercises.

    This also makes me think of the value of having a like minded training partner to record reps and or TUL. Or count cadence for you. I think Drew has mentioned some smart phone apps that can help with some of this if you train alone. I like being able to focus on controlled contractions and breathing freely when I exercise and not on counting anything. On the other hand I suppose one could say that if was truly focused I should be able to count at least some of these things.

  5. Keith July 29, 2012 at 2:25 pm #

    Mr. Baye,

    I’m a fan of the work you do. I have a question regarding split routines.

    Would it be beneficial to split my routine to insure intensity? If I do the big 5 compound lifts, I feel my last two or three exercises are lacking intensity.

    More specifically, Could I perform my chest press and vertical press on one day, wait 4 days then perform my two pulling movements and my leg press and rest 3-4 days. Or would that be to small of a recovery window?

    I hope to hear from you.

    -Keith
    A fan.

    • Drew Baye July 29, 2012 at 6:14 pm #

      Keith,

      If you’re going to divide the exercises up rather than performing both pushing movements one workout and both pulling movements the other you should do one of each during each workout. I’d also suggest adding a trunk extension (machine, body weight hyperextension, or deadlift) to one of the workouts. For example:

      Workout 1:

      Leg Press
      Pull Down
      Overhead Press

      Workout 2:

      Trunk Extension
      Chest Press
      Compound Row

      If you’re doing fewer compound movements you might also find you’re able to add one or two exercises for smaller muscle groups like calves or neck at the end of your workout and still do them intensely.

      • Keith July 29, 2012 at 10:35 pm #

        Mr. Baye,

        Thanks for the reply.

        How would you factor in recovery time on a split routine to insure there is enough?

        • Drew Baye July 30, 2012 at 9:20 am #

          Keith,

          With a lower workout volume you might find you recover faster but it’s better to err high than low with recovery time. I don’t recommend more than two workouts a week for most people even when splitting them.

          • Mark Hunt August 1, 2012 at 5:30 am #

            Hi Drew,

            What do you mean with two workouts a week, I lost you here?

            At my local gym I got a workout plan which recommend me to train 3-4 times a week every other day for 45 min. each workout. Do you mean this is too much?

            Thanks,
            Mark

            • Drew Baye August 1, 2012 at 11:08 am #

              Mark,

              While the optimum volume and frequency varies between individuals as both go up you quickly reach a point of diminishing returns. If you are training intensely enough there is little benefit to training more than twice weekly and if you’re moving quickly enough between exercises your workouts should take about half that long.

  6. Teemu August 3, 2012 at 3:01 am #

    Hi Drew,

    First thank you for the great information and for your life long quest for finding the most effective/safe training method.

    I’ve taken my first plunge to the world of HIT and Super Slow training, although it’s still too early to tell if my intensity/recovery are in line with my genetics to deliver results.

    I have tried most of the training systems and eating patterns and got almost zero results (except getting fat at one point for trying to eat my self big).

    Now doing Paleo/primal with leangains for eating and a super abbreviated training regime with 10/10 cadence: (no additional “cardio” etc.)

    Monday
    Dip

    Wednesday
    Squat
    Calf raise

    Friday
    Pull-ups

    But the more I have read your stuff and BBS I begin to wonder would it be better to just do one workout per week with the three exercises or two with upper/lower split?

    Does recovery ability suffer from three workouts if there is only one exercise and no overlap between them?

    Thanks again and keep up with your quest!

    Teemu from Finland

    • Drew Baye August 9, 2012 at 6:47 pm #

      Teemu,

      You are unlikely to overtrain on such a low volume even if it’s spread over three days but it would be more efficient and you would get a better metabolic and cardiovascular conditioning effect by performing all four on the same day. I would recommend starting with two workouts a week then cutting back from there if you determine you require more recovery time.

  7. Marc August 16, 2012 at 1:40 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    I’d like to transition to a HIT routine from my current 4 day split (chest/tri, back/bi, legs, shoulders). I’ve been bodybuilding for about 2 years and I’m seeing good results, but I’m tired of spending 45 minutes 4 days a week in the gym.

    My question is this: My routine right now is targeted to help out some lagging body parts, specifically delts, upper chest, and triceps. I’m concerned that I won’t be able to properly stimulate growth by trying to hit everything in one or two days a week. Would it be just as effective to stick with a 4 day split and just change my set/rep scheme to a single set HIT style? That would drop me to 2-3 sets to failure, 4 times a week.

    My follow on question is – assuming you’re going to tell me I need to work out at most 2 times per week, how is stimulating a muscle once every 14 days going to get it to grow maximally? This flies in the face of hypertrophy specific training (HST), for example, which says to hit everything every 2 to 3 days.

    Thanks!

    • Drew Baye August 20, 2012 at 10:54 am #

      Marc,

      I recommend switching from a split to to either full body workouts emphasizing the lagging areas or alternating between a full body workout and body part specialization routines. There are several examples of these in High Intensity Workouts.

  8. Coli August 19, 2012 at 4:11 pm #

    Drew – does diet composition change recovery time? It seems that since I went low carb, long term, I recover faster and have much more power and energy duration

    • Drew Baye August 19, 2012 at 6:04 pm #

      Coli,

      Absolutely. Proper nutrition is necessary to make the most out of your efforts in the gym.

  9. jobe September 27, 2012 at 11:10 pm #

    Hi Drew

    I want to focus on getting a bigger shoulder, so I am doing the Chest & Back/Shoulders & Arms/Legs & Trunk split Routine with 3 days apart. It says in your book ‘ recovery is both a local (muscular) and systemic (whole body) process and intense exercise for one muscle group will affect the recovery of other muscle groups elsewhere in the body…’

    I am wondering whether my workout frequency is too high even though they are different muscle groups.

    Cheers
    Jobe

    • Drew Baye September 28, 2012 at 11:44 am #

      Jobe,

      Three days of rest between workouts is plenty for most people, especially on a split routine. As long as you are making steady improvement over time you are getting enough rest between workouts.

  10. Phil October 28, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    Long story short.. I have been working out 3 times a week on an upper body rotated with lower body routine. Each muscle gets worked 3 times every 2 weeks for 1-2 sets a workout. I have been lifting for years, but never trained each muscle group directly only once a week. My question for you is…
    If I followed the routine below, is this too little training? Is it enough to maintain what I have? Can it build on what I already have?
    chest, bi’s, tris one hard set each—Monday
    quads, hams, calves one hard set each—Wednesday
    back, shoulder, abs one hard set each—Friday
    Each workout would be a total of only three hard sets. Each muscle trained directly 1 time a week. Your thoughts???

    • Drew Baye October 28, 2012 at 4:22 pm #

      Phil,

      If done intensely enough it is enough to improve, not just maintain. However, I would recommend combining them into one or two workouts done twice weekly rather than three and see how your body responds.

  11. William November 24, 2012 at 12:11 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    Great website, very informative! Question on frequency. Could a frequency like this be beneficial in gaining muscle mass: first week workout: on a Monday. Second week workout: Monday and Thursday. Third week workout: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Fourth week: Monday and Thursday. Fifth week: Return to first weeks schedule. Sixth week: repeat second week. Seventh week: repeat third week…and so on
    Would this facilitate better recuperation time and grow faster? A schedule like this, could the body become more efficient at growing quicker, via, overtraining 3 days a week and then taper down to 2 days the next week, and then taper down to one the following week and then start ramping back to two then three again?

    • Drew Baye November 24, 2012 at 3:18 pm #

      William,

      Periodic overtraining won’t cause your body to grow faster, it will interfere with recovery and growth. Base your training frequency on the time your body requires to recover and adapt between workouts and not arbitrary patterns.

  12. Lewis December 3, 2012 at 7:06 am #

    A lot of Mentzers writings state that if you have DOMS or are not feeling 100% recovered then you shouldnt train again, in fact Mentzer referred specifically to DOMS as a sign that you are not yet fully recovered and should therefore continue to rest and intake nutrients.

    Thoughts?

    • Drew Baye December 3, 2012 at 2:02 pm #

      Lewis,

      Like I wrote in the article, the presence of muscular soreness is not an indicator of workout recovery. Pain tolerance and subjective perception of soreness varies between individuals and although a trainee will usually experience less soreness from workouts over time recovery demands increase as one becomes more advanced (stronger, better conditioned, and capable of training more intensely).

  13. Darren February 16, 2014 at 6:48 am #

    I find hitting a muscle once a week is useless. They shrink before they get hit again and I agree with Darden that atrophy starts after 96hrs. My muscles are full hard and dense hitting them 2-3 times a week but soft if I train them once a week or less

    • Drew Baye February 17, 2014 at 10:45 am #

      Darren,

      As long as a person is eating properly their muscles will not atrophy after only a few days, or even a few weeks of training. While training two to three times weekly is more effective for people whose body’s can handle it not everybody has the same response to exercise and for people with poor recovery less frequency would be better.

      If you want the best possible results you should work out as frequently as your recovery ability allows, but realize this varies between individuals and as volume increases you quickly reach a point of diminishing returns. I suggest reading Effective Versus Optimal Training Volume And Frequency.

  14. Darren February 17, 2014 at 11:15 am #

    I’m 45 and been lifting on/off since 1987. My CNS recovery isn’t good but my muscles can take a lot. I’m on a 3 day full body at mo, then switch to 2 if owt crops up. I did a NTF day by instinct way before Darden mentioned it. HIT isn’t done in UK much

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