Let’s imagine you just lifted weights, went to a full-body HIIT exercise class for 90 minutes, or ran a few miles for the first time in several months or years. The next day, you squat down to sit on the toilet and part way down you lose control of your legs and fall in. As you clean the toilet water off your body in the shower, you try to wash your hair and can’t get your arms above your head. You’re in a world of hurt, to say the least. 

Fortunately, regular exercise that also gets progressively harder and moves you closer to your goals doesn’t have to result in this type of soreness. It should be more between this:

And (minus the neck brace) this:

Not carrying in the groceries like this…

So, how sore should I be?

The answer is simple: just sore enough. Just sore enough that you can still perform daily tasks, and just sore enough that you know your training program is challenging you in a way that you haven’t been challenged before.

If you’re constantly sore to the point of being uncomfortable and it affects your daily life, chances are you’re overdoing it and you’re going to burn out and quit or develop an injury. The energy you feel the next day or two will likely also depend on your diet and not just your training because certain deficiencies can present themselves as lack of energy, decreased performance while training or increased soreness (out of the ordinary) even when your training program has been consistent over the course of several weeks.

The best thing you can do if you’re experiencing out-of-the-norm soreness for weeks at a time is to first dial back your training until your energy comes back, or second (if you don’t feel “normal” again after a couple weeks of dialed-back training and your diet, sleep schedule, and stress level seem normal), visit a dietician or nutritionist and have him/her analyze your diet. All you may need to do for this is record exactly what you eat and drink for 3+ days (including any supplements or medications) and they’ll help you with the rest. One of the most common deficiencies leading to decreased energy and performance (especially in women) is iron deficiency. Deficiencies are usually fairly easy to find and easier to correct with the right kind of help – and not just by guessing on your own.

The other big reason you may be experiencing some of the issues above (decreased energy, loss of motivation, decreased performance, etc.) is simply a “poor” training program.

By poor, I mean you go to the gym, classes, watch videos, etc. and just do whatever presents itself. You don’t track progress, make mental notes of what weights to use or write them down, or choose exercises that are conducive to your goals. Some days it doesn’t feel like you did anything and other days it feels like you were beaten with a bag of old sweet potatoes in your sleep. If this describes you, my apologies (but seriously, consider revising your training program if it does describe you).

Over-the-top soreness doesn’t mean you’re “killing it” in the gym and you’re going to get bigger, faster, and stronger than everyone else around you; it means you’re either pushing too hard, not recovering well, or a combination of both. Soreness does not always equal progress.

Once you’ve been training for a while (several years), you’ll come to realize it gets harder and harder to actually make certain muscle groups sore and that will no longer become a “good” progress indicator. If you’re already at this point, kudos to you because you’ve stuck with it for longer than a LARGE majority of your peers. Keep it up.