Do You Need to Feel Sore to Get a Great Workout?

soresuccess

Raise your hand if you’ve ever taken a little bit of pleasure from feeling that burning in your thighs the day after your workout.

It’s okay. I do it too. My buns are feeling a bit spicy at the moment from my lower body strength session yesterday.

And I kinda like it.

It doesn’t mean we’re into some kind of oddball pain kink if we enjoy the residual effects of working our muscles. Those sensations are a palpable reminder that we’re changing something in our bodies. And most of us are in the gym to change: attempting to become faster, stronger, more muscular, or leaner. Whatever. All of those things require moving our bodies.

But what happens if you don’t feel it? Was it just not intense enough?

I’ll share a story with you that will help you understand why I’m talking about this today.

Earlier this year someone added me to a private Facebook group for “fitness motivation”. It was all local people and I quickly discovered that they were all part of another gym program in my town. I have no idea how I got added to the group, but I’m a snoopy curious person, so I lurked.

Over and over again, I read comments that went like this:

“Oh my God I can barely walk today! That workout was amazing.”

“I’m toast! I can’t believe how many rounds we did. I’m going to be so sore tomorrow LOL”. 

“My triceps! YEEEOWCH! Amazing workout yesterday, thank you guys!”

The reaction, invariably, was a congratulatory bonanza of high fives and encouragement.

You may be seeing where I’m going with this – these folks made a connection between two things that sometimes go hand in hand.

However, they are actually NOT inextricably linked: effectiveness and soreness.

As it turns out, while a little soreness might feel mentally or even physically appealing, we need to let it go when evaluating the effectiveness of our workouts.
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How Muscle Soreness Works
What’s happening to your body when you feel sore the day (or two days) after a workout is something that exercise physiologists refer to as ‘delayed onset muscle soreness’ (DOMS).

When you exercise, your muscles go through stress, and that often includes teeny tiny tears in your muscles and connective tissues. That’s a normal part of muscular stress, and when you rest, your body repairs those tears and you get stronger and more awesome.

You feel the soreness typically 24-48 hours after your workout, and then it usually subsides.

A few more facts about DOMS may put things into perspective:

 

  • Eccentric (lengthening) contractions tend to cause more DOMS than other kinds of muscular contractions.

 

  • Movements that are new to you will usually cause more soreness. Even if you’ve been working out consistently, if you begin squatting when you weren’t before, you’re going to feel it.

 

  • People who are new to an exercise program will likely feel the most DOMS as they  are just beginning, but that level of soreness will diminish.

 

  • Individuals vary on how sore they get – some people seem to be constantly feeling a lot of DOMS. Others, not so much. This is just anecdotal observation from working with my clients.

 

Does Soreness Mean That You Gained Muscle? 
Hang tight for a short science lesson here. Nerd out with me for just a moment: 

Researchers Brad Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras examined this question in the Strength and Conditioning Journal. 1

They found inconclusive results regarding the actual mechanisms that make us feel delayed onset of muscle soreness. In short, those tiny tears in our connective tissues sensitize our pain receptors. We then get pain messages that cause us to feel sore. It’s a lot more complex than that, but you get the drift.

There’s the other question of if DOMS is necessary to build muscle, since muscle damage contributes to muscle hypertrophy (this is sciencey talk for building muscle). In short, muscle damage does contribute to hypertrophy, but as Schoenfeld demonstrated in another study, hypertrophy can occur without it. 2

So there. You don’t have to be sore to build muscle. But soreness, to varying degrees, can accompany that muscle damage that often happens when we exercise. The problem isn’t with having DOMS, it’s when we try to wreck ourselves looking for it.

 

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Don’t Go Chasing Pain (Or Waterfalls)
TOO much DOMS is counterproductive. Beginners often feel relieved to know that their soreness is normal. However, those people who crave an intense workout can see their progress backfire when they chase the pain.

If you’re constantly beating yourself up so much that you are always sore going into your workouts, a few things will happen: you won’t perform optimally, which in turn will diminish your results. You’ll also be more likely to wreck yourself by going in with a #HAM attitude.

When my online coaching clients give me their feedback, those new to training often feel sore the first few weeks. Most everyone will feel sore from time to time, but we don’t put any value on it other than being concerned if they feel excessively sore on a regular basis.

Instead, they chase better: they celebrate indicators of gym progress like adding pounds to their squat total, getting a faster 5k, or noticing that their pushups feel easier. My client, Joan, just transitioned from kettlebell squats to barbell squats. She’s a grandmother. She keeps breaking her own records, and we celebrate that. Not her quad soreness.

While the process of getting fit often comes along with a bit of achiness, it isn’t the measuring stick of effectiveness. Work hard, but more importantly, work smart(er). Chase improvement, not pain.

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Notes:

  1. Brad J. Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras, “Is Post-Exercise Muscle Soreness a Valid Indicator of Muscular Adaptations?” Strength and Conditioning Journal, vol. 35 No. 5 pp. 16-21 (2013)
  2. Brad J. Schoenfeld “The Mechanisms for Muscle Hypertrophy, and Their Application to Resistance Training” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 24(10) (2010)

Lunge Variations to Try and Why

James Brown probably loved to lunge.

James Brown probably loved to lunge.

Lunges help us move better. They also make me sing “Get on the Good Foot” by James Brown. You should get on your good foot, leg, and hip — and then switch to your other side too. Most of us should incorporate unilateral work into our training. Unilateral sounds much more serious than it is; it just means working on one side at a time. For example, when you load one leg or one arm vs. doing an exercise like the squat, where both sides of your body are doing the same thing. Get the picture?

Coaches like to give people both unilateral and bilateral exercises because that’s how we move in life. We also like to change up the directions that our clients move – because our daily activities don’t require motion in only one direction. Life gets kind of twisty sometimes.

Because we’re less stable in the lunge than other two-legged activities, we get a chance to work coordination and muscle activation in new ways. This translates to real-world benefits too: from sprinting and zig-zagging down a soccer field to twisting to grab a bag of mulch in the garden, we need to be able to use our bodies to do stuff. And lunge variations help in this regard.

Lunges can build strength in your butt and legs. Because we require more stability to execute a single-leg exercise than a bipedal exercise, our abs come to the party too. Lunges can be incorporated into a warm-up too as a mobility drill. They help wake up my tight hips in the morning. I lunged down the hallway to the bathroom today. True story.

These unilateral wonders also play a role in training our ability to control deceleration, or slowing down in movement. This helps prevent injuries.

You can use a search engine to find eleventy-billion lunge variations. People get pretty damn creative with this movement, which basically refers to an exercise that incorporates a leg that stays anchored with a bent knee while the other leg moves in another direction. That’s it.

Tips for Lunge Success
– Your knee can come forward some, but with all lunge variations, letting it come way past your toe is usually no bueno. Taking a bigger step will often fix this problem. 

– Drive your heel into the floor as you push up. 

-Some folks tip way too far forward with their chest. You want a relatively upright position: enough that if I were wearing my “Des Moines, Hell Yes” t-shirt you could see the words as I lunged. 

-For moves like the static, forward, and reverse lunge, aim to get your knee a few inches from the floor but don’t let it actually touch the floor. 

-On a reverse, forward, and static lunge, you’re looking for close to a 90 degree angle with your knee bend at the bottom part of the movement. 

While variations seem endless, I keep coming back to a few key variations with my clients. Here are my favorites and how to incorporate them into your own routine.

Static Lunge
new static lunge

Brand spanking new to lunges? Start here.

How to do these: get your body into the lunge position with one leg behind you, hips facing forward. Think of your feet standing shoulder width apart instead of standing on a tightrope – you don’t want them so close together that you can’t balance. Lunge back with one leg and then just bend and straighten your legs, descending into the position and elevating again to the top without actually stepping between reps.

When to do them: as a strength exercise as a beginner. Once you can do these easily, then move on to other variations. The reverse lunge is a great variation to try next.

Reverse Lunge with Crossover
Lunge with Crossover Collage

The reverse lunge seems to work really well for my clients with knee pain. While squats may feel awful, they can often tolerate this pattern well.

These seem to be more easily learned for many of my clients than other variations, yet they are suitable for advanced lifters too. Try this variation with crossover in my pic. It requires extra stability and gives you some rotational work too. My butt and thighs weep from reverse lunges after I do heavy sets on leg day.

How to do reverse lunges with crossover: Begin in an upright position with either your hands clasped in front of you or holding a weight. Take a big, controlled step back with one foot and as you do so, rotate toward the leg that is in front.

When to do them: As a body weight exercise or warm up, or loaded up as a strength move. I use them for accessory work after my main lower body lift of the day.

Extra tip: I find that people do better with these when they just smoothly move back and down in one movement instead of shifting back, planting the foot, and then descending.

Curtsy Lunge
Curtsy Lunge Collage

Coach Robert Dos Remedios once wrote that dudes don’t like the idea of curtsying, so he prefers the term “drop lunge”. I say deal with it, men folk. You can curtsy lunge and still wrestle grizzly bears, I promise.

This variation is nice because it allows us to move in all three planes of movement. We get to rotate at the hip, which doesn’t happen in a lot of gym exercises, but happens alllll the time in life.

How to do these: stand with your feet about hip width apart. Step one foot back and across the opposite leg. You want to take a pretty big step here – go back and wide as far as you comfortably can and plant the ball of that foot onto the  ground, then sink down into that curtsy like the Queen of England is in front of you. Try to keep your front foot’s toes pointed straight ahead.

Other form tips: Don’t add any load until you can do this with good form, just like every other variation. Keep an upright torso and try to minimize shoulder rotation.

When to do them: I often put these into a warm-up with no load, or I add a lighter load to them at the end of a workout.

Jump Lunges 


These are just extra-spicy static lunges with a jump to switch legs.
Begin with your front leg at a 90 degree angle, as if you’re in the lower position of the static lunge. Then spring up and switch the position of your legs in midair, landing with your opposite foot in front. Alternate these back and forth . Keep your torso upright enough that someone could see writing on your t-shirt as you move.

When To do them: I throw in fairly low-rep sets of these into metabolic conditioning circuits because they send my heart rate skyrocketing in a flash.

Lateral Lunges with a Pulse


Remember that we talked about how important it is to move in different directions? Also called side lunges, lateral lunges are a favorite of mine because they encourage me to load my muscles in a different way.

The pulse variation is extra awesome. I nabbed it from my coach, but I think the pulse flavor originated with Dan John. That guy has all the moves. Anyway, it’s good stuff because holding a dumbbell or kettlebell out in front of the body forces you to use your abs. In turn, you learn how to better stabilize your body. It encourages you to have a better position through your back too. What’s not to love?

How to do these: take a big step out to the side, keeping your toe pointed forward. Your knee shouldn’t go way past your toe. To help keep this from happening, think about sitting back into the lunge.

When to do them: typically later on in my workout. I never load these up super heavy. You’ll be surprised at how hard they are with a relatively light weight.

Time to Practice!
Here’s a conditioning workout that will let you try some of these lunge tricks. In addition to helping you build strength, stability, and mobility, throwing these into a conditioning workout will shoot your heart rate up too. Here we go!

Lunge-a-Palooza
Instructions: You’ll do lunge variations sprinkled with interruptions of other challenges. Begin by completing 8 of everything and work your way down to just 2 reps of each move. Phew! Do this with body weight only for an at-home workout, or amp it up with some dumbbells/kettlebells at the gym.

8,6,4,2 reverse lunges with crossover
8,6,4,2 pushups
8,6,4,2 curtsy lunges
8,6,4,2 dumbbell rows or towel rows if you’re at home with no equipment.
8,6,4,2 jump lunges
8,6,4,2 reverse crunches
8,6,4,2 lateral lunges with a pulse

Rest briefly between rounds and expect some tired legs!

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Gym Jargon 101

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Sets. Reps. Load. AMRAP. HIIT. If those words confuse you a little, then sit down and join me for a short lesson in understanding fitness jargon.

Remember when we had no idea what lol, lmao, and brb meant? My kids speak “intarwebz” now. It’s crazy. They actually say “lull” for LOL and “Gee Gee” for GG, a gamer’s phrase that means “good game”. I’m probably already out of the loop with the newest crop of internet acronyms.  Just like understanding  slang thrown around online, it takes time to learn the lingo of any community we join.

Fitness should feel inclusive.  While good gyms and trainers do their best to make newbies feel welcome and successful, we sometimes forget that we were also once new to the gym. Yesterday I started training a client who is fairly new to strength training, and began asking him about his current routine.

“So I’ve been doing 12 sets of everything” he shared. What? Damn, that’s a lot. It made me tired just thinking about it.  But it quickly became apparent that he had swapped the definition of two terms, and it reminded me that those of us who have been gym rats for awhile forget that along with learning how to pick stuff up and put it down, we had to learn the lingo too.

So here we go – here are some basic definitions that will help you know what the heck everyone is talking about.

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Reading a Workout
If you’re following a training plan, the instructions for your workout will include important terms to understand as well as knowledge of how to decipher how you complete your exercises.

Reps: This is shorthand for repetitions. Repetition counts refer to the number of times you complete the movement before resting. So if I do 8 squats, I will perform a squatting movement 8 times.

Sets: Remember those 8 reps I just did? That was one set. I may rest, go do something else, or be done if my plan said to do one set. If I have 2 sets, I’ll come back and do my reps again.

Rest: This seems like a no brainer, but rest is often dictated by a plan. “Rest 30 seconds between sets. Rest 2-3 minute between sets”. The amount of rest you take will vary depending on how heavy you’re lifting and what kind of training you’re doing.

For strength training, heavy sets of low reps typically require more rest than lighter sets of many reps. Conditioning workouts like HIIT (more on that later) may program specific working to rest ratios in order to challenge your body in completely different ways.

Rest is important for successful strength training, so if your plan advises you to take it, get a drink and chill out until it’s time to work again.

Tempo: Usually you won’t see these on beginner-focused plans, but it refers to the speed at which you lift and lower the weight.

X: Usually “times”, as in 3 x 5. The confusing part is that one number refers to the reps you do, and the other refers to the set.

The standard way of interpreting these is SETS X REPS. So for 3 x 5, you’d do 3 sets of 5 reps.

Load: How much weight you are lifting. Sometimes also ‘WT‘ used for weight.

AMRAP: Sometimes this term is included in a strength workout but also in conditioning workouts and finishers. (Those terms I’ll explain soon too!) AMRAP is an acronym for AS MANY REPS (OR ROUNDS) as possible. Trainer Jen Sinkler sometimes defines it “as many reps are pretty”, which I adore for the reminder that we want our reps to be tough but stop before our technique breaks down.

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Workout Words
These can be confusing. A lot of trainers don’t even know what metabolic conditioning actually is. Let’s make this less fancy and explain these ideas simply.

Circuit: A group of exercises performed sequentially. Usually you’ll see multiple rounds of circuits indicated. Doing exercises in a circuit is done sometimes to give us more rest between movements without sitting around: we can get more done in less time, though we’ll continue to be working so overall we may be more taxed than if we’re resting between each set. A circuit may have 3 exercises or 8. It’s just a method of pairing exercises for a workout.

HIIT: High intensity interval training. HIIT is a training method that alternates short intense bouts of work with rest or less intense work that helps you recover and get ready to do another interval.  HIIT produces anaerobic conditioning benefits. Your anaerobic system is one of your body’s energy systems and training it helps train qualities like speed and power. It also torches calories. But it’s not necessary for everyone and not always a great fit for beginners.

Metabolic Conditioning: also often called “metcon”. Loosely speaking, this refers to exercise done with multiple muscle groups (often referred to as compound movements) with little rest between exercises in order to maximize calorie burn during and after a workout. It’s often confused with HIIT. There is no set structure of metabolic conditioning other than completing work that creates the effect.

Cardio: Everyone has a different image in their head. Maybe it’s step class. Maybe it’s running. Maybe it’s the thing that some trainer told you you’re not supposed to do because it makes you fat. (It doesn’t). Cardio just refers to work done with the aerobic (oxygen) energy pathway. It’s typically rhythmic in nature and done over a longer period of time than more intense work. “Steady state cardio” often refers to things we do with a steady heart rate over a period of time, like a half hour walk.

Finisher: a short, intense exercise or group of exercises used at the end of a workout. Sometimes this is used for a metabolic effect or just for happy endorphins and because it feels good to sweat.

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Body Talk
If you hear a trainer ask you to palpate your gluteus medius, please punch them in the face for me. Or in their gluteus maximus (the butt). Over time, you’ll learn the proper terms for your muscles, but hopefully your training guides explain things in plain English at first. This isn’t an anatomy lesson, but here are some common terms to learn:

Quads:  your quadriceps, a large muscle group that includes 4 big muscles that run along the front of your thigh.

Hamstrings or Hammies: a group of 4 muscles that run along the back of your thigh.

Lats: latissimus dorsi, fancy talk for giant back muscles that run from your shoulder way down to your hip.

Core: a much bandied-about term for the muscles of your torso: in other words, not just your abs, but several muscles play a role, including those lats and your lower back.

Glutes: there are 3 gluteus muscles in your butt, including the largest, the gluteus maximus. Substitute “butt” for glutes and you’ll know what’s up.

Other Mumbo Jumbo

Mobility: Your ability to effectively move or be moved freely and easily.

Dynamic Stretching: a form of stretching where instead of holding a stretch for a longer period, you continue to move, often with a movement that mimics the movements you’ll do during a workout. It’s usually incorporated into a warmup, while static stretching is best done at the end of a training session.

Conditioning: exercise done to increase your energy and performance at a particular task.

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For Fun: Bro Speak

Because I love the bros:

Gym Bro: a dude who lives the gym life. Also called Bruh.

Gunz: Your guns are your biceps. You flex them, especially on Fridays.

Gainz: Gains are what you get as a benefit from training. Otherwise known as improvement.

Swole: Swollen, meaning extremely muscular or buff.

Aesthetics: your physical appearance.

Bulking: gaining weight with the goal of building muscle.

Cutting: losing fat, often with the hope of showing those hard-earned muscles.

‘Mirin: admiring, usually in the form of praising someone’s gainz.

Even Lifting: You regularly lift weight at the gym. If you don’t even lift, you might be in trouble with the bros.

Have a little more understanding now? If there’s a fitness term that still baffles you, leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to explain.

If you’re looking for a beginner-friendly guide to training and nutrition, be sure to sign up below to get my free book, “Fat Loss on a Budget”. You’ll be off to a great start!