The worst thing about being ill is the effect it has on your training schedule…
It’s not the banging headaches, or the tissues stuck to the side of your face.
Heck, it’s not even the conveyor belt of hot lemony drinks making your home smell like a Minion factory.
It’s the fact that you want to drink your pre workout, flip your cap backwards like Stallone in Over The Top, and and smash seven kinds of f**k out of the dumbbell rack. But you can’t.
… or can you?
Should You Workout When Your Are Ill?
If you ask this question on the gym floor, you’ll receive a selection of different answers based on personal opinions.
“No, you’ll lose all your strength.”– Gym bro 1.
“No, it’ll make you feel worse.”– Gym bro 2.
“Yes. Get to the gym and sweat it out.”– Gym bro 3.
But which gym bro is correct?
Today I’m going to give you a definitive answer. And that answer is “no”.
I’ll explain more below, but I want to say I totally understand why people continue to go to the gym when they’re ill, and why there is such confusion on this topic.
Picture the scene.
You’re sat at work on Monday, chest pumped out as you watch over the office like Zeus, when a flu-like virus sweeps through the population and dismantles the workforce.
Initially, your body stays strong and confirms that you are indeed more man than them all.
But despite your insistence that Susan the should “f**k all the way off away from you before you catch it”, illness eventually strikes.
Man Flu… 2.0… The Revenge… This Time It’s Personal…
The thought of missing a few days at the gym sounds as appealing as pooing a hedgehog, so you begin asking for advice, and that’s where the confusion starts.
Heck, I recently ran a poll on my Twitter page to ask my followers whether they would still train when ill, and the results were a very close 52%/48% in favor of going to the gym!
So let’s break this down…
Why The Answer Is No
There are three key reasons why you should not workout when ill.
1. Your Immune System Cannot Recover
The body’s immune system is at war with the illness you’re suffering from. Eventually, it will win.
But what happens when we go to the gym and engage ‘beast mode’?
You guessed it, we give our immune system a royal kicking, which can lead to longer recovery times.
Enter the “neck check” system.
A 1996 study published in the Journal of Athletic Training recommends looking at where your symptoms are occurring. If they are below the neck (i.e. coughing, shortness of breath, tightness, vomiting, etc), then you are going to be severely restricted with what you can do in the weights room. (1)
Your options here are limited to skipping the gym, or drastically dialing down the intensity of your workout if your symptoms are above the neck. Which brings me to our next point…
2. Your RPE Will Suffer
If someone asks the question “Can you still build muscle when you’re ill?”, then the answer is yes.
As far as the body is concerned, the process for building muscle is exactly the same. It doesn’t know any different.
But if we go to the gym when we’re ill, we’ve already covered the effects this takes on the immune system and how this could impact recovery time, so how hard could we train anyway?
Rate of perceived exhaustion (RPE) would be significantly lower, and we’d be unable to provide our muscles with the progressive overload they require in order to grow stronger.
So while we can still build muscle, we’d likely just be going through the motions.
3. You Cannot Sweat Out A Cold
I’ll use this post to dispel the myth that you can sweat out a cold in the gym.
You can not do this.
Contrary to fitness memes, sweat isn’t made up of “toxins”. Nor is it “fat crying.”
It’s just water.
So anybody claiming that you can rid your body of illness just by sweating, for want of a nicer word, is a c**kwaffle.
They’re mistaking the release of exercise-induced endorphins with the feeling of recovery. Exercise always makes us feel great (how many times have you had a s**t day at work, followed by a great workout? Right!) But it shouldn’t be confused with a cure, because once those endorphins fade away the illness will remain.
4. You’ll Make Everyone Else Ill
Don’t be that guy.
Seriously, nobody likes him.
So, should you workout when you are ill? No! You now know the difference between fact and fiction, and can ignore poor advice from colleagues the next time you fall victim to the plague.
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- Weidner, T. G., et al. Sport, exercise, and the common cold. J Athl Train. (1996)