Ask a Swole Woman: How Sore Should I Be After Lifting Weights?


Hello hello!

The Internet is full of conflicting answers and I trust you, so here is my very brief question: If I am sore after deadlifting, where *should* I be sore, and where should I *not* be sore? I am currently sore in my lower back; it doesn't feel painful and it's not interfering with anything...and yet the Internet is all "You're doing it wrong."

I am willing to entertain the idea that I am, in fact, doing it wrong, as I'm fairly new to lifting, but I'm pretty sure I'm not arching my back and I have the bar real close to my body at all times. (Also, do I have to ease the bar back down with good form and all or can I just drop it like I've seen everyone else do so satisfyingly?)

Thank you!


All different things come naturally to different people, is what I say to myself empathetically when I feel myself doing deadlifts kind of wrong for the billionth time.

“Am I doing x wrong?” is a question I ask myself a lot in all facets of life, and most of the time, there is no good answer. Usually the answer is, “probably? But how much does it matter?” And then more questions follow, and eventually I have to set the existential interrogation aside and move on with my life. But a somewhat nice thing about lifting is that when you ask, “Am I doing this wrong?,” the answer is also sometimes, or even often, “probably.” But how wrong you’re doing it and how you might do it differently is never a grand philosophical mystery. It’s also not a question of perfection vs. imminent death. There are things you can change. There are things all of us can change. Even the world’s most experienced lifters are still tinkering with their form and the cues they use to use their bodies even more optimally than before.

You are going to experience soreness here and there when lifting, and sometimes soreness even feels a bit nice, in my experience. But it shouldn’t be debilitating, or really disproportionate across various muscles in your body when you are using many of them in concert, which is what you are doing in a deadlift. A big disclaimer here before I go any further: It's important to recognize the difference between your run-of-the-mill delayed-onset muscle soreness—which is normal to feel after you do any workout or lift that's engaging muscles you're not used to working so hard—and an actual injury. If you feel a sharp, stabbing, popping, or sudden pain while you're lifting, that's a sign you may have hurt yourself and need to stop and reassess both your form and how heavy you're lifting (and maybe take some time off and see a doctor if you really think you may have hurt yourself). And in general, if soreness doesn't start to improve after a few days or gets even worse, that's also a red flag.

With all that being said, I have personally experienced a lot of lower back soreness in the past from deadlifts. Sometimes I still do, and it comes from my body not properly engaging my relatively larger hip and leg muscles; instead, my upper half of my body flops over, my chest collapses, and all of the effort gets transferred to the relatively tiny muscles in my lower back. This makes objectively no sense, and if my body knew what was good for it at all it wouldn’t do this. But it’s working against years of habit forming where I’d lurch over at the waist to pick stuff up from the ground or bend over to tie a shoe, or whatever, without using any of the muscles that are supposed to be used for that, like my legs and butt. It’s not going to kill me, but I know from my experience it means I need to make some adjustments, and possibly drop the weight a few pounds until I can lift it responsibly again.

It sounds like your soreness is not too bad (from your letter, I’m not sure how it can be “sore” but “not painful”), but soreness is not the best guide for whether you’re doing something right. A much better guide is checking what your form looks like from videos or having a trainer or partner watch you, and evaluating it against the basic principles of a good deadlift: Keep the bar over midfoot and shoulders over the bar, keep your back relatively straight, and move it in a straight line.

Virtually everyone’s form can stand to be improved, which is a thing I encourage you to internalize if you ever start to feel guilty about being “bad” at lifting, or even defensive or fragile about feedback. We were all bad at things once; if we take time off or sustain injuries, we might become “bad” again. But we can all also get better. The longer I lift, the more I relish those times after taking some time off when training is not a question of, “Is this going to be the best lifting session of all time, or something less than that, i.e. some sort of failure?,” but rather a question of, “How low can my expectations possibly be in order to get myself back on track?” Low expectations are, sometimes, such a nice gift to yourself.

But as for what might cause soreness, let’s consider the spectrum of lifting wrongness. On one extreme, there is lifting so wrong that you are putting yourself at certain risk of immediate injury. This might look like, I don’t know, trying to squat 400 pounds when you’ve never squatted more than 135, or just running full-speed straight into a piece of gym equipment. On the other extreme, there is lifting that is so functionally perfect you can only inevitably become stronger with each successive session. Nearly all of us fall somewhere in the middle, and maybe more importantly, some extremely successful people fall closer to the bad end than you might expect given how good they are. Many famous lifters have unusual form; Layne Norton, a two-time national champion powerlifter, has a famously weird squat. You will even see some very good deadlifters round their backs during deadlifts (which is generally the wrong thing to do), but this is more about how form might break down when trying to lift as much weight as they possibly can, as well as very experienced lifters knowing their limitations. It’s a real “do not try this at home” situation. When they round, it is with intention, and not recommended for normal people trying to do normal deadlifts.

The principles of good lifting form are pretty finite, and there are limits to how weird any human body can be, but your leverages (the lengths of all the various sections of your limbs), your training history, your skill, and many other factors come together to produce what is good form for you, which may look different than what is good form for someone else. All this is to say: There are principles to good form but also degrees of subjectivity, and no one is ever really “done” either learning to make their form better or just trying to stay the course as they get stronger.

It is possible for form to be just fine. Totally adequate. Serviceable. Form matters for beginners about as much as it matters for everything; I’d love just once to see anyone be as superstitious and fearful of others having, say, bad running form when they are just getting into running and they are when people are just getting into lifting weights. Your form not being perfect or there being room for improvement does not mean you are wrong, or that you should give up.

As for your process-specific questions, definitely do keep that bar close to you; you should be literally lightly dragging it up your legs, skin on barbell (this is why we wear knee socks or leggings). What you do with the bar at the top is technically your business, however it’s considered rude in most places and cultures to just drop the weight and let it fall from your hands. Conversely, it’s not necessary to lower it delicately to the floor like you’re putting a teacup in a saucer; the most correct thing to do, in my opinion, and also because it’s what is done and expected in powerlifting where we deadlift for sport, is to “control” the bar down to the floor, meaning you release the tension in your body so the barbell falls to the floor, but you keep your hands on it until it’s all the way down. Some gyms will hate this because it is loud, but many gyms, good gyms, will welcome it, because sometimes good things are loud.

Casey Johnston is the editor of the Future section at The Outline and a competitive powerlifter with a degree in applied physics. She writes the column Ask a Swole Woman for SELF. You can find her on Twitter: @caseyjohnston.

Letters to AASW are edited for length and context, and the content of each AASW column is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of SELF or SELF editors., GO TO SAUBIO DIGITAL FOR MORE ANSWERS AND INFORMATION ON ANY TOPIC

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