Muscle Soreness & Sports Performance: Should you lift weights before a game?

By: Jules Kirkpatrick, MS

Muscle soreness CAN lead to a decrease in power output! But is lifting weights the reason your athlete is sore? Or is there something “novel” you have to consider?

This article helps you understand what contributes to soreness and determine how lifting should fit in your athlete’s schedule during her competitive sport season.

It’s morning time; you open your eyes and move your leg a smidge. Ouch. Eventually you progress to rolling yourself to the edge of the bed – even more pain. Finally, you use a little momentum to get yourself completely out of bed so you’re standing up. It feels like every muscle in your body is on fire.


Raise your hand if you’ve ever been in this situation!


If you’re an athlete, your hand is probably up. Soreness can be downright annoying, especially while you’re in the middle of your sports season which are intense, grueling, and hard enough on their own without added muscle pain!


Add in weight training. As an athlete, you’re probably familiar with a situation where you’re supposed to go to a weight session, but you have a BIG game later in the week. Lifting weights means picking up heavy stuff and moving it around. Ummm… that doesn’t seem like it would help? Should you just avoid lifting? 


In this article we will cover:


1.     What is muscle soreness & why does it occur?

2.     How does muscle soreness affect sports performance?

3.     Is lifting to blame?


What is muscle soreness & why does it occur?


Muscle soreness is classified as a type I muscle strain and is the soreness that presents itself during or immediately after a bout of training (2). Symptoms may include:

·      Muscle stiffness

·      Aching Pain

·      Muscle tenderness


But what if I don’t get sore immediately after training? And, what if the pain continues to get worse a few days after? It’s not just you!


This is referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and is common for athletes across the spectrum – novice or elite (1). This type of muscle soreness will begin about 24 hours after a training session, peak around the 72 hour mark, and typically resolve within 5 to 7 days (2).


The exact mechanism of muscle soreness is yet to be determined, but it’s likely a combination of factors such as: muscle tissue damage, connective tissue damage, inflammation, and electrolyte/enzyme changes (1).




Does muscle soreness affect our sports performance?


The answer is yes! Consequently, soreness is a valid reason for concern by athletes and sport coaches. The name of the game is winning, which can be hard to do when your muscles feel achy and tired.


Muscle soreness can lead to (1):


·      Reduced strength and power

·      Reduced force output

·      Decreased ranges of motion which may impair shock absorption and increase injury risk

·      Altered coordination and joint kinematics which may lead to inappropriate movement patterns


This doesn’t really sound like the recipe for winning – and it’s NOT!

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But here is the thing. Soreness is a sign that you have exposed your body to something NOVEL. This type of novel stimulus tells your body: “Hey we aren’t used to this! We better recover and ADAPT so we can handle this in the future”

During your off season leading to your pre-season, this type of novel stimulus pushing for adaptation is NECESSARY to IMPROVE your athleticism!

As you season kicks off, your goal has to change from IMPROVING your athleticism to MAINTAINING the jumps in fitness you have made!

Soooo, at this point it seems that the best solution is: no weight lifting before a game and even better, minimizing ALL weight lifting during the sports season, right??!




WHO is truly the culprit of your muscle soreness?


Here’s what we ALSO know about muscle soreness (1):


1.     Soreness is MOST prevalent at the beginning of the sporting season

2.     Soreness often occurs when athletes are introduced to NEW types of exercises or movements that they aren’t accustomed to

3.     Soreness is typically the result of high-force muscular work from eccentric muscle actions (An eccentric muscle action is when a muscle lengthens and contracts simultaneously - think “braking” - ex: the downwards portion of a back squat)

4.     Soreness is also related to the volume and intensity of activity


Can weight lifting result in sore muscles? YES.

Can running, cycling, and playing basketball ALSO result in muscle soreness? YES.

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Let’s look back to the original solution: minimizing weight lifting before games


If we know that NEW activities (such as the exercises you would perform in the weight room) contribute to muscle soreness, does it still make sense to avoid lifting before games? Probably not.  


If you only lift one time a week (since many sports have games or competitions multiple times a week), there’s an increased chance that you would be MORE sore than if you lifted two or three times throughout the week. Why? ONE day of lifting weights would likely create a more NOVEL stimulus - leading to an increased risk of soreness – than two or three days of lifting would.


However, we also know that soreness is related to the volume and intensity of exercise (also a novel stimulus in terms of MORE work or MORE load). Is it possible that two or three days of weight lifting will wear you out? YES. Inappropriate training prescriptions during a sports season can and do occur.


Thus, is it VERY important to separate two different scenarios. Lifting weights during the sports season is not bad, however, inappropriate weight training prescription CAN be detrimental.

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So, should I just avoid weight lifting all together during my sports season? 


If one day a week of weight training isn’t going to work out very well, what about avoiding it all together during the season? After all, soreness won’t matter when the season is over, right?


Wrong! Here’s why:


Lifting weights during the season is a MUST. As discussed earlier, sports seasons typically have a large physical demand and often involve high volumes of training. While sports seasons vary in length, they are usually a few months which is too long to forgo weight training without losing muscle tissue - not great! Lost muscle tissue has a direct effect on muscle strength, power, and force production (3).


Think of lean tissue as premium fuel for a car. Premium gas means the most efficient level of functioning. While you CAN go an entire sports season without lifting weights, the deterioration of lean tissue will leave you in a LESS prepared physical state than where you were at the BEGINNING of a season. Typically, the END of a sports season is the MOST important when fighting for a NCAA championship; you want to be running on PREMIUM fuel for optimal performance! Weight training is the gas pump for premium fuel. While some muscle tissue may be lost during the sports season, you will retain better performance characteristics than you would with NO weight training for months!



So, are the weights REALLY what makes you sore? 


Think about the layout of a sports season. Let’s say you play college volleyball.


Pre-season is typically short, with only a few weeks before you jump into pre-conference games. During the Fall you’re traveling like crazy, playing multiple times a week, and the season ends in November or December. Your ‘off-season’ in the Spring means less volleyball practice and maybe more weight lifting, but when summer rolls around your playing time is minimal, and most likely no one lifts weights since Coach isn’t hawking over you. 


Flash forward to when summer ends: you head into pre-season, begin 2-a-day volleyball practices AND start lifting weights. OUCH.

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More often than not, athletes experience huge drops in training volume during their off-season, followed by an inappropriately rapid increase in weight training and sport practice volume which can lead to MAJOR muscular damage, soreness, and increased injury risk. 


In fact, “soreness tends to dissipate when a muscle group is subjected to subsequent bouts of the same exercise” (4). While genetic differences do exist – some individuals are very prone to soreness, some not so much – it is important to consider that soreness is often the result of NEW activity, not just weight training. 


Before you blame the weights, you might ask yourself these questions:


1.     Am I performing a new or unfamiliar activity (an activity not performed on a regular (at least 1x/week basis)?

2.     Has the intensity or volume of my training jumped up more than usual?



Main Takeaway Points:

·      Do not be afraid to lift weights during your sports season – it’s advantageous!

·      While muscle soreness CAN and DOES occur, weight lifting itself is not always the culprit

·      Consistent training leads to adaptation… (the ‘use it or lose it’ principle applies here)

 ·      If you are new to lifting, starting it during your season may not be the best idea!

 ·      If you lift during your off-season, you must keep doing so (but at a different volume & intensity) to MAINTAIN the adaptions you made!


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1.     Cheung, K., Hume, P. A., & Maxwell, L. (2003). Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness: Treatment Strategies and Performance Factors. Sports Medicine, 33(2), 145–164.

2.     Lewis, P. B., Ruby, D., & Bush-Joseph, C. A. (2012). Muscle Soreness and Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness. Clinics in Sports Medicine, 31(2), 255–262.

3.     Mujika, I., & Padilla, S. (2001). Muscular characteristics of detraining in humans: Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 33(8), 1297–1303.

4.     Schoenfeld, B. J. (2012). Does Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage Play a Role in Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy?: Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(5), 1441–1453.