What muscle soreness really means
written by Philip Stefanov | AUGUST 3, 2021
We’ve all experienced the bittersweet feeling of muscle soreness. Our muscles are achy and weak, and we can’t move as freely as usual. Yet, we enjoy it because soreness confirms that we’ve done good work in the gym.
Or have we? Is muscle soreness a genuine indicator of effective training or something else?
Well, yes and no. Yes, because muscle soreness is an indicator that we’ve caused a significant enough disruption. No, because a disruption doesn’t necessarily predict growth or strength gain. Let’s review.
What is Muscle Soreness, Anyway?
Muscle soreness occurs when we cause a degree of muscle fiber damage. It’s most pronounced when we do something we are not used to - be it a new exercise, a different kind of training, or more work (sets, reps, and exercises).
For example, when you haven’t done a specific exercise in a while, it can cause significant soreness in the following days. For me, Romanian deadlifts cause incredible soreness if I haven’t done them for a few weeks.
Muscle soreness also occurs from damaging the integrity of cells in our muscles. This is known as metabolic damage and allows for fluids and other things to enter cells, promoting inflammation and leading to soreness.
Muscle soreness is also known as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) because it typically comes 12 to 24 hours after training and can peak as late as three days after training. How long it lasts varies from person to person and how much damage they’ve caused. For example, I remember feeling sore for over a week after my first ever leg day.
What Does Muscle Soreness Mean Or Indicate?
Muscle soreness is strange. On the one hand, no research indicates that soreness predicts muscle growth. On the other hand, never experiencing soreness signifies that your training isn’t disruptive enough, and you might be leaving gains on the table.
For example, running is one activity that often leads to muscle soreness, especially in people who don’t do it regularly (1). But I’m sure we can agree that running itself causes minimal growth. This is one sign that we shouldn’t rely on soreness to predict the effectiveness of our training.
Plus, too much soreness can reduce our performance and range of motion, leading to less productive workouts. Given that training volume is vital for hypertrophy, not being able to train hard enough is not exactly ideal (2).
So, it’s nice to experience the occasional soreness in your muscles, especially when doing new exercises or increasing the amount of work you do. Never getting sore likely means you’re not doing that much work. But soreness alone doesn’t mean you’ve had a good workout.
Instead, focus on progressive overload, stay consistent with your training, and push yourself hard enough.
Thank you for reading! Until next week,
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