Do you know the worst thing about being sick?
It’s not the banging headaches, or the tissues stuck to the side of your face.
If you’re a gym rat like me, it’s the impact it has on your workout schedule!
Missing a few days at the gym sounds about as appealing as pooing a hedgehog, because all you wanna do is gulp your pre workout, flip your cap backwards like Stallone and smash the f**king s**t out of the dumbbell rack… but you can’t.
… or can you?
There’s a lot of confusion about this question among gym members. Some people believe training while ill will prevent your body from a speedy recovery, and others believe it actually help you recover FASTER by letting you “sweat it out”. I even ran a poll for my Twitter followers, and the results were 50/50!
So it’s time to get real.
Today I’ll be looking at what science says regarding training when sick. Let’s get to the bottom of this one.
GET READY FOR A PERFORMANCE DROP
If the question was “Can you still build muscle when you’re sick?”, then the answer is YES.
As far as the body is concerned, the process for building muscle is exactly the same and it doesn’t know any different.
However, that’s not the question.
Because even though the body is CAPABLE of hypertrophy, it is unlikely that we will be able to provide it with the necessary stimulus to do so. This is because the rate of perceived exhaustion (RPE) is significantly lower for most people when they are ill, resulting in a below-par workout where you simply “go through the motions”.
Plus, if you’re ill then it’s worth taking other gym members’ health into consideration (we don’t want another lockdown!). Nobody wants to be the inconsiderate f**k who wiped out half the gym with flu.
This begs the question; are we trying to train because it’ll make us feel better? Or are we trying to train because we hate the thought of a day off?
🚩 YOU CANNOT SWEAT OUT A COLD
Unfortunately, humans don’t work this way.
I love the idea of walking into the gym full of snot and walking out feeling like a million bucks but sweat is just water.
Weight loss gurus and fitness memes which claim sweat is “toxons” are dead wrong.
It’s pretty common for people to believe that exercising while ill helped them to feel better, but what’s actually happening here is their body produced dopamine as a response to exercise, and this makes us feel like everything is Lego Movie awesome.
Once those endorphins fade, the illness remains.
🚩 YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM CANNOT RECOVER PROPERLY
The immune system is at war with the illness you’re suffering from.
It is a battle your body will eventually win (otherwise you would die), but it doesn’t help the process if you place additional stress on the immune system via exercise at the same time.
So how do we know if our illness is something which requires full rest, or something which isn’t so bad?
Enter the so-called “neck check” system.
A 1996 study published in the Journal of Athletic Training recommends looking at WHERE your symptoms are occurring.
- Below the neck (chest pains, coughing, shortness of breath, tightness, vomiting, etc)
- Above the neck (sneezing, headache, etc)
If your symptoms are below the neck then you’d be very restricted in the weights room and it’s advisable to miss the gym until you feel better. If your symptoms are above the neck you can probably still train, but will be forced to greatly reduce the intensity of your workout. (1)
Personally I’d rather you just go buy some red Lucozade, climb inside a blanket, and post to Facebook about how sad you are for a few days. Job done.
- Weidner, T. G., et al. Sport, exercise, and the common cold. J Athl Train. (1996)