Performing a brand new workout is often exciting. But more than the workout itself, the soreness that comes on over the next couple of days is often something we take as an indication that what we’re doing is working.
But does muscle soreness actually mean our workout is more effective? Or, more importantly, does not feeling sore mean that we’re not getting as much out of our workouts as we should be?
The goal of this article is to briefly answer those questions and to put into context the importance of delayed onset muscle soreness (otherwise known as DOMS).
Damage and Growth
I think that when we wake up feeling the soreness from a workout we presume that a certain process has occurred. We presume that the soreness is from muscle damage and that the damage we created is producing growth. So what we really need to do is determine whether either of those assumptions are true.
When it comes to damage, it actually turns out that damage IS often associated with muscle growth, but it is not a requirement. Rather there are circumstances (such as higher rep training) that can elicit muscle development in the absence of measurable muscle damage.
So what this basically means is that while damage is a part of the process of muscle growth, it is not the only one. Tension, damage, and metabolic demand are all stimuli for building new muscle and none alone is sufficient to maximize growth.
Soreness and Damage
But since damage is at least one of the factors in terms of developing muscle, is it still good to use soreness to determine if at least that has occurred?
It turns out that when subjects are asked to rate their muscle soreness the correlation between their pain ratings and actual measured muscle damage is not very strong. It appears that the muscle soreness you experience after training may be more closely related to some of the connective tissue elements of the muscle being damaged than the muscle fibers themselves.
And after you’ve done a workout a few times muscle soreness actually decreases due to something called the repeated bout effect even though it still may actually be developing at the same rate.
So in the end, it turns out that muscle damage is only part of the picture for growth and that our perception of soreness is only loosely correlated with the muscle damage anyway so this is unlikely to be a very good indication of muscle growth.
This point actually reminds me of the subjects in my study that I was running while I was doing my Masters program. I was looking at the effects of training concentrically (only the lifting phase) with one arm verus training eccentrically (only negatives) with the other arm for a period of several weeks to determine the effects on muscle growth and strength.
As it turned out, only the arm that trained exclusively with negatives ever felt any muscle soreness afterwards, but the arm that did only concentric movements for the entire protocol never once felt sore. In the end though, the both experienced the same amount of muscle growth as a result. So this lends support to the idea that you don’t have to experience pain to grow.
Marathon runners, on the other hand, may travel great distances and experience a fair amount of muscular soreness the next day in the absence of much (or any) stimulus to build muscle at all.
When you’re training, expect to get sore with a novel stimulus. But remember that this is not inherently indicative of muscle damage or muscle growth. Similarly, remember that the decreased pain with repeated bouts is also not necessarily indicative of the fact that your plan isn’t working.
In the end, it comes down to applying tension, creating damage, and really challenging the muscles in a variety of set and rep ranges to optimize development. Soreness may or may not accompany your workouts, but it isn’t necessarily a marker of progress anyway.