We are square in the middle of the cold and flu season, which always leaves the lifter with one burning question: Is it better to take time off or train while sick? I know this is a question I have struggled with throughout my lifting career. It is also one in which I have been on both sides. This winter, I have already had to ponder this question twice.

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I pride myself on my many, many years of lifting and the fact that I am still educating myself about strength training. In some sick, demented way, I also pride myself on some of the extremely stupid things I have done in my past training. You could say I look back and chuckle at myself for being a completely clueless but badass tough-as-nails lifter. I was under the impression it was only about how intense and hard I trained. I lived by “the more is better” approach and was continually trying to out-do myself. In terms of training when sick, I was way too badass to ever let being sick get me down.

Yes, I am saying I always trained when I was sick. If I were physically too sick to train, I would make up missed sessions as soon as I was able to. So if I missed a day of training, I would train twice the next day or would combine my scheduled session to one super long intense session. I can’t say I ever remember any of those sessions going very well, but I do remember feeling pride for how tough and persistent I was! I look back now and shake my head at so many things I did. Sometimes I have to do things the hard way first so I can learn the smarter way in the end. OK, it is more like most of the time!

Just like so many areas of training, there are tons of opinions, and it is no different on the questions of training while sick. I am not a doctor, nor do I have any background treating colds, the flu, or anything like that. I do have experience as a top-level strength athlete with years of training under my belt than most. I also tend to see things in a very logical, thought-out manner. So let’s look at this from a very simple standpoint.

training sick bike

Weight training puts a great deal of stress on our whole bodies, both physically and mentally. That stress continues as our body is recovering from that training, and that recovery is even more stressful when we train at or near the limit of our bodies. Being sick puts very similar stress on our body, and it is usually working at 100 percent capacity trying to cure itself. Yes, the amount of stress can vary greatly depending on what we are sick with or even how hard we train. Still, even the common cold can make a regular workday seem grueling, difficult, and twice as long as usual, to the point where all we want to do afterward is go home and lay in bed. Take a very bad flu, and the stress put on our bodies can be ten-fold. If a common cold was no big thing with little stress on our bodies, then why are there whole rows of medicines at the pharmacy to help us feel better? What sense could it possibly make to go train when our bodies are already overloaded? What we should be doing is to actually help our bodies by conserving energy it needs to fight the sickness.

Let’s look at this from another angle. We need good, solid training sessions to make our best gains. In order to have those training sessions, our body needs to be healthy. Yes, we train until we’re sore and not always feeling our best, but what is the point of training when we feel like complete shit? Our body is already behind the eight ball, and we know it cannot possibly give us what we need for even a mediocre training session. How is it supposed to give us adequate recovery when it is already spending most of its energy fighting the sickness? This is like going into a fight with your hands tied behind your back.

In my mind, it really is as simple as weighing out the risks to benefits. One of the biggest secrets to strength is consistency in training, but this needs to be done intelligently. The fact is that missing one or two sessions is not the end of the world if it is rare. And how often do we really get sick? You’re just not gonna lose strength from missing a few sessions on rare occasions. Plus, what kind of training sessions are you missing anyway? Odds are the training sessions while sick will be shit anyway. So what are we risking if we do train while sick?

I can say from plenty of hard-headed experience that I ended up expanding the duration of my sickness when I trained while sick. This also means I end up having more shit sessions because I was sick longer. I then ended up having a much slower recovery from those sessions, too. Instead of letting my body focus on healing from the sickness, I made it do double-duty trying to cure the sickness and trying to heal from training. So I could’ve just missed a couple sessions and gone back to quality training, or I could’ve dragged out the sickness and shitty training for a much longer time. It seems pretty clear that the risks outweigh the benefits.

Other factors many lifters do not think about are their team, training partners, or other gym patrons. It is very easy to pass on germs at the gym. People are breathing heavy, sweating, and touching a lot of the same equipment directly after each other, not to mention they’re being in pretty close proximity of each other. Do you really want to risk messing up your partners’ or teammates’ training just because you’re so freaked out that you could lose strength by missing a couple sessions? The idea is to build each other up, not break them down.

training sick chad

I think the hardest part of listening and acting on our own logic is the mental anguish we still put on ourselves. There are just so many misconceptions we cannot seem to let go of, and even when we do make the right choice, there is still a part of us deep down that won’t let go of them. I hear it all the time: “I am getting weaker ‘cause I missed a training session. I have to train everyday ‘cause I will get weaker if I don’t.” You’re simply not going to get weaker in a day or two. Yes, if you constantly miss sessions, you will not gain strength or not at a rate you could, but this does not mean you get weaker by missing a session.

I’ll admit it: I love all those old-school motivational sayings and the idea that working as hard as you can is the best thing. Work your fingers to the bone, and you will get ahead. Not really, because in reality, all you did is work your body so hard it wore the skin off your fingers. How long will it take to heal that?

I love the one about your competition working harder than you or when you’re resting, they are working. Do you know how many times I won competitions because my competition was working when I was resting? By the time the meet came, they were over-trained and exhausted, questioning how they hit the same number they missed at the meet for a double in training just a week earlier. There is a time to train with enormous intensity and a time to rest with just as much intensity. It is not OK to miss because you’re just being lazy or unmotivated, but if you’re sick, it is the smartest thing to do.

As I said, I am no doctor, and I do not have a bunch of studies to back up what I am saying here. I do, however, have a ton of experience, and every doctor I have talked to has agreed with what I am saying. Lifting is not rocket science or curing cancer, but it does take intelligent thinking and actions to succeed. Yes, maybe you can tough it out and get a training session in, but is the reward really worth the risk? All you did is tax your already fighting body even more. You just made it harder for your body to heal the sickness and recover from the training session you just pushed your body through. This will prolong the sickness along with your recovery. There is no gain from training while sick, only risk.

Every single time in my life when I decided to train while sick was never worth it. I would have been much better off missing a session or two and letting my body heal. It would have been a much shorter time before I could have gotten back to quality training. I get wanting to never miss a training session, and I totally get taking pride in training through anything, but training while sick just doesn’t make sense. Take pride in training smart!