Listening when your body tells you to take the day off.
I feel like working out, but my body says “no”. Or, my body’s fine, but I’m not feelin’ it. Everyone pursuing fitness has that internal debate from time to time. Got a muscle problem or motivation problem?
Training for performance, physique, or overall fitness, calls for progression and that means overload. Overload in layperson’s terms means pushing the body beyond its current limitations—pushing the envelope, to use a familiar term. The proper amount of overload isn’t something you can see, it’s something you feel. It can’t be gauged by a clock, a wrist-worn device, or a program. So learning how to gauge the amount takes intelligence and the ability to read what your body’s telling you before, during and after exercise.
Let’s use an analogy. If I have an acre full of leaves to rake, and try to rake them all in one afternoon without having raked in a while, I’ll get blisters and raw skin. It will be several days before I can get back out to finish the job. Rake for shorter periods over a few days, the job gets done and I’m able to rake longer next time. Sub-maximal exposure leads to improved ability to do more.
Several popular exercise programs encourage overdoing it. Slogans like “All it takes is all you’ve got”, and “Pain is just weakness leaving your body”, make for good T-shirts but glamorize over-training and throw shade on recovery. Progressing requires overload, and overload-in-progress feels like discomfort. Making friends with reasonable discomfort sets the trainee up for success. From there, the relevant questions become how much discomfort, and, what kind of discomfort. Too much too soon equals exercise overdose. Programs that call for training beyond normal exercise-related fatigue into exhaustion, or training when hurt, are like getting one blister on top of another believing a callous will result.
After a good workout, muscles require anywhere from 48 to 92 hours to recover. Logically, the harder and more specific the workout, the greater the recovery time. So, how do we know “when”?
Here are a few suggested guidelines for deciding whether to stay home or go to the gym.
Muscles a little stiff day after
We’ve all experienced this. The day after a hard workout, or any physical activity we haven’t done in a while, moving is a little more challenging and our muscles are letting us know we got in their space. If the program calls for a reasonable number of days between workouts1 (Rhea 2003), there’s probably no reason to stay out of the gym, especially for those new to, or just returning to, exercise.
Soreness beyond these intervals may mean the program should be regressed.
An intelligent warm-up, performing the same exercises slated for that workout, will usually loosen things up.
For “trained” individuals, it’s prudent to be even more tuned-in to soreness. Why? Trained persons are often fitness enthusiasts, and can often push themselves harder than those who exercise for general fitness, or out of a sense of obligation. They are also more likely to be skilled at exercise performance, and can subject their bodies to more specific overload.
Muscles a little stiff the day after the day after
DOMS. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Hit the gym hard on Monday. No soreness Tuesday. Wake up Wednesday and feel it. I read this as a signal that I did my job well in the gym. DOMS alone is no reason to take a day off.
An intelligent warm-up patiently performed prior to the next bout of exercise should get you ready.
Recommendation: Go to the gym and warm up smart. Keep it light or choose an alternate workout if still sore after the warm-up.
Burning—not lactic acid burn during a set—signals possible micro-trauma to muscle fibers. It can also be a sign of nerve compression or damage, depending on its location, as in the glutes, or back of the leg. Severe burning mid-muscle often means torn fibers. See a medical professional if that’s the case and it persists after rest. If the area burns whether sitting, standing or reclining, it probably means you overdid it and would benefit from a day or more away from training for the involved body parts until symptoms resolve.
Recommendation: Intense burn, stay away, rest, ice and OTC anti-inflammatories. Ignore macho cheerleading to train through it.
Sharp pain in muscle
Sharp, stabbing pain always means something’s not 100% right. If the pain occurs in the muscle belly at a specific place and time during an exercise, it could mean local muscle trauma. Like burning, it’s a signal that you’ve done too much one way or the other and need to give it a rest.
Recommendation: Rest. If still painful after rest, see a physical therapist or medical doctor for appropriate attention.
Pain around or in a joint when moving
Pain near a joint—such as forearm near the elbow—usually means overuse injury like tendinopathy. Continuing to train the muscle group will only make things worse and could create what Dr. Fred Hatfield referred to as cumulative microtrauma, with its strength- and motion-limiting adhesions. Long-term overuse brings on tendinosis— a chronic condition that presents with collagen break-down. You’re best to give it a rest.
Pain in any joint, if it persists, should be evaluated by a medical professional.
Want to work out but not feelin’ it
You’re looking forward to the gym but something’s just not right. Brain says go, body says no. Run that stop sign and you risk injury.
Feeling under the weather can be the result of over-training2. Vigorous exercise taps, and saps, the body’s resources, diminishing its ability to fight off infection temporarily, especially common colds. If you have a cold, consider over-training as a possible cause. And if you have one, stay away from the gym so you don’t infect everyone else. We all thank you.
Recommendation: Game-time decision. If you decide to go, take it slow. Warm up smart and see where it leads. If ill, take the time to recuperate, or work out with appropriate exertion, away from others.
Feel OK but don’t want to work out
Similar, only different: body says OK, but brain says ‘no way’. This is the most challenging biofeedback to read. A number of factors play into this feeling: life stressors, an illness that’s coming on but with no obvious symptoms, or over-training2. A trained individual who’s in touch with their body should pay close attention to its early warning system. If the “not feelin’ it” attitude occurs during a period of intense training, proceed with caution.
Decision: Warm up, start light, and take it from there.
How to recover faster
There are ways to game your system and ameliorate the effects of post-workout soreness that are not the result of injury. Cold therapy, post-workout and next-day stretching, and compression from garments and massage3, can all reduce soreness and get you feeling like hitting the gym again sooner.
The general importance of reading the body
No fitness app or exercise program can tell you what’s going on inside your own body. The best any measurement tool can do is provide direction, and then only if significant research went into its creation.
Learning to decipher what your body is telling you, and helping clients learn to decipher their own biofeedback, is crucial to developing a long-term, healthy relationship with exercise.
- Rhea MR, et al., A meta-analysis to determine the dose response for strength development. Med Sci Sports Exercise. 2003 Mar;35(3):456-64.
- Cardoos MD, Nathan. Overtraining Syndrome. Current Sports Medicine Reports: May/June 2015 – Volume 14 – Issue 3 – p 157–158.
- Dupuy Olivier, et al. An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Physiology. 2018; 9: 403.
Special thanks and shout-out to my go-to physical therapist Aaron Gray, PT, DPT, for his clinical expertise in fact-checking and editorial suggestions…all incorporated.