“I love my new program!”
That was the headline of an email that I received from Jen — one of my online coaching clients — this morning.
I opened the email and continued to read…
“The workouts are short, but man they’re tough! I’m sweating like crazy…”
“I feel so great after I’m done because I’m really challenging myself…”
“And by the end of week 1, I was sooooooo sore, but like a good sore! That has to mean that they’re working right?…”
I was happy to hear that she was enjoying her workouts, that she felt good, and that she was proud of how hard she pushed herself.
But there was one thing that I had to explain in my response — muscle soreness doesn’t indicate whether or not a program (or workout) is “working.”
What is muscle soreness?
Delayed onset muscle soreness — or DOMS — is the fancy scientific name for the muscular pain and stiffness that we sometimes experience in the 8- to 72-hours after a tough workout.
It’s what makes getting up off the toilet feel like the hardest thing you’ve ever done.
For some people, it’s oddly satisfying. Probably because mainstream media and Instagram memes have lead them to believe that it’s an indication of a good workout.
Is muscle soreness actually a valid indicator of a good workout?
A recent study by Brad Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras asked exactly that. Let's review their findings...
What causes muscle soreness?
While the exact mechanism is still not well understood, DOMS appears to be related to inflammation caused by micro tears in the muscle following intense physical activity.
DOMS is more common after performing new exercises or exercises that you haven't done in a while. It's also more prevalent after performing exercises that involve eccentric (muscle lengthening) contractions, like Romanian deadlifts, for example.
Is muscle soreness a good thing?
Like most other things in the health and fitness space — it depends.
DOMS is totally normal. If you workout, you're probably going to experience it at some point, and that's absolutely okay.
Being sore after a workout might be a sign that you trained hard enough to elicit a response from your muscles. But there is such a thing as too sore.
Severe DOMS can significantly reduce your muscles' ability to produce force, which can have a detrimental effect on subsequent workouts. And it can also negatively effect motivation. Neither of these are beneficial for long-term results.
Taking it a step further and purposefully chasing muscle soreness can lead to over training and increased risk of injury.
Which leads us back to our initial question...
Is muscle soreness a valid indicator of effectiveness?
The research presently available clearly shows that DOMS is not an accurate indicator of workout effectiveness.
In other words, being sore after a workout does not mean that your program is working, that you're getting stronger, or that you're burning more fat.
It doesn't indicate anything really, other than the fact that you're sore.
How can you actually measure effectiveness?
It's simple, use assessments to keep track of your progress.
There are lots of different ways to track progress. What's important is that you choose assessments that are specific to your goals — ones that can reliably show whether or not your program is working.
- If your goal is strength, use repetition maximum tests — like 1RM, 3RM, or 5RM tests— for your big lifts (e.g. squat, deadlift, bench, etc.). If you're newer to strength training and don't feel comfortable performing RM testing, you can simply keep track of the weights you're lifting for your primary exercises during your workouts.
- If your goal is fat loss or muscle gain, use progress photos, girth measurements, and body fat percentage.
- If your goal is endurance, use race times, 1-mile run time, 5-mile run time, max pushups, or max pullups.
- If your goal is general health and well-being, keep track of any indicators that are important for you (e.g. any of the tests listed above, subjective well-being surveys, blood test results, etc.)
When it comes to tracking progress, all that matters is that you use the same assessments reliably — i.e. you perform them the same way each time.
Tracking your progress at regular intervals will all you to accurately asses whether your program is working and it will also help you understand what factors move you closer to your goals.
Should you train when you're sore?
Yep, there isn't a hard-and fast answer this question either. Because everyone has different training goals and training thresholds.
If you're relatively new to training or if you're starting back up again after a break, then more often than not, getting some movement in will help your muscles recover.
If it's the day after the workout that left you sore, do some light activity — go for a walk, do some mobility work, or do a light workout that involves different muscle groups.
If it's been 48-hours since you worked out, then train. Warm-up well and do your workout as programmed. Use lighter weights if necessary, but do your workout. Doing so will NOT cause further damage to your muscles. In fact, the increased blood flow will actually help speed up your recovery.
If you're a more experienced lifter, you can use the information about DOMS above and your knowledge of how your body reacts to different types of workouts to decide whether rest, active recovery, or a workout would be best for you in that moment.
To sum it up...
Being sore after a workout isn't a bad thing.
But it absolutely does not mean that the workout that made you sore was effective.
The only way to gauge the effectiveness of your workouts (or training programs) is to track your progress.
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