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.
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.
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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- 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) ↩
- Brad J. Schoenfeld “The Mechanisms for Muscle Hypertrophy, and Their Application to Resistance Training” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 24(10) (2010) ↩