Fitness Myths that NEED to Die: Is Muscle Soreness Good For You?

is muscle soreness good for youMy trainer is SO good!” she raved over the phone.

My friend, Carrie, just called and was giving me the inside scoop on her new personal trainer.

Having had the same discussion with countless (likely hundreds) of people before her, I knew where the conversation was headed.

Seriously. You wouldn’t believe how sore I am after her workouts, Jordan. I literally can’t even walk. It’s the greatest feeling in the world.”

Experience has taught me confrontation is futile.

I opted for the inquisitive approach.

So you’re seeing good results with her?”  I inquired.

Oh my GOD, yes!” she shrieked.

I quickly lowered my earpiece volume before she continued, “I’ve never been so sore in my life. Ha! My arms are so wrecked after working out that I can barely lift them to put soap in my hair!”

She misunderstood my question.

I had asked if she was seeing good results; not if her trainer was making her sore.

I tried again.

So you’re losing weight?” I asked. “You’re getting stronger? Looking and feeling better?

She paused.

A brief hesitation ensued before she continued. 

Yea, of course! I mean, I’m working really hard, sweating a lot, and I’m wicked sore after all my workouts. Obviously I’m doing something right….

Aren’t I?”

Is Muscle Soreness Good For You?

Carrie’s dilemma represents that of most fitness enthusiasts. 

For a variety of reasons – mostly pertaining to misinformation propagated by the media and various marketing scams – we’ve been led to believe that muscle soreness is not only a good thing…but that it’s the single-best indicator of workout effectiveness. 

This myth is relentlessly perpetuated through a variety of outlets but most predominantly social media pages like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Not sure what I mean?

“Fitspiration” meme’s like this one explain it all…

is muscle soreness good for youHere’s another one…

 

is muscle soreness good for youAnd another one…

 

is muscle soreness good for youAnd another one…

 

is muscle soreness good for youOh! And another one…

 

is muscle soreness good for youAnd another one…

is muscle soreness good for youYou get the point.

Everywhere we look we’re being told that the most effective workout is the one that makes you the most sore.

But this begs the question…

Is Muscle Soreness a Valid Indicator of an Effective Workout?

Dr. Brad Schoenfeld, researching pioneer in all aspects of nutrition and exercise science, recently conducted a meta analysis discussing this very question.

In his paper, Is Post Exercise Muscle Soreness a Valid Indicator of Muscular Adaptations?, Dr. Schoenfeld examined the entirety of relevant research to date and found data with major implications for exercise and fitness enthusiasts of all disciplines.

To summarize his findings…

What is Muscle Soreness? 

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) can be simply defined as the muscular pain/stiffness experienced generally between 6 to 72-hours after a bout of vigorous physical activity.

In layman’s terms, it’s the feeling that makes sitting on the toilet the day after leg day simultaneously the most excruciating and oddly satisfying experience known to mankind.

is muscle soreness good for you

What Causes Muscle Soreness?

While research is still unsure of the precise mechanisms, DOMS appears to be related to micro-tears in the muscle after intense physical activity. Important to note, DOMS is most often pronounced after performing a new or unfamiliar exercise or movement. Practically, this means you’ll be more sore after performing an exercise you haven’t done in a while.

What’s more, eccentric (muscle lengthening) contractions tend to produce more muscle soreness than concentric (muscle shortening) contractions. 

Does Everyone Experience the Same Muscle Soreness After Exercise?

No.

Interestingly, DOMS is highly variable and changes significantly from person to person. Even up to the highest level elite lifters, some report experiencing DOMS on a regular basis while others note little-to-none.

Also worth mentioning, there appears to be variance in DOMS based on muscle group. That is to say, some muscle groups seem to get sore more often and with much greater intensity than others.

Is Muscle Soreness Good For You?

It depends.

On one hand, muscle soreness is a totally normal and expected result of vigorous physical activity. Plain and simple, if you’re physically active you’re most likely going to experience muscle soreness at one time or another and that’s absolutely fine.

Taking that one step further, muscle soreness also has the potential to be a decent marker indicative of muscular damage. While this certainly doesn’t tell us whether or not a workout was effective, it may provide some insight for those looking to optimize muscle hypertrophy. 

On the other hand, there is such a thing as too much muscle soreness. Not only can chasing muscle soreness be dangerous in that it can lead to excessive training volumes and intensities, but extreme muscle soreness has been shown to alter exercise technique (increasing risk of injury) and even negatively affect motivation to workout. 

Which leads us to the biggest question of ’em all…

Is Muscle Soreness a Valid Indicator of an Effective Workout?

No. 

Absolutely not.

Given the totality of available research, it is abundantly clear that muscle soreness is in no way, shape, or form a valid indicator of an effective workout. 

While muscle soreness can give some insight as to whether or not there is muscle damage (possibly indicating the right environment for increased muscle hypertrophy), the overwhelming majority of research indicates that muscle soreness does not correspond to a better workout.

muscle sorenessAnd that’s totally fine.

Trust me, I understand that, for us masochistic fitness enthusiasts, it can feel sorta good to be sore the day after an intense training session.

But that’s not the point.

The point I’m trying to make is that muscle soreness is not a valid indicator of…well…pretty much anything other than the fact that you’re sore.

  • Muscle soreness can NOT tell you whether or not your workout was effective.
  • Muscle soreness can NOT tell you whether or not your personal trainer knows what they’re doing.
  • Muscle soreness can NOT tell you if you’re burning more fat.
  • Muscle soreness can NOT tell you if you’re getting stronger.

So How Do You Know if Your Training is “Working?”

Keep track of progress.

measure your successSpecific and measurable components that prove your training is effective.

For example…

  • If your goal is fat loss, take progress pictures, body measurements, and keep track of your body composition to see if you’re making noticeable changes over time.
  • If your goal is strength gain, keep track of your best lifts in big, compound movements (squat, bench press, deadlift, chin-up) to make sure you’re increasing strength over time.
  • If your goal is general health, keep track of the various markers that are most important to you (resting heart rate, body fat percent, 1-mile run time, 5-repetition maximum) to make sure you’re improving over time.

Through tracking your progress, you’ll spend far less time spinning your wheels and gain a much better understanding of what truly works to help you achieve your individual goals.

Take My Client, Lisa, For Example

My online coaching client for the last 2 years, Lisa has meticulously tracked her progress to ensure her continued long-term success.

What does Lisa measure?

  • Every morning she checks her body weight
  • Every couple weeks she checks her body measurements
  • Every month she compares progress pictures
  • Every time she puts on her clothes she makes note of how tight/loose they feel
  • Every month she evaluates her strength progress in a variety of lifts
  • And a whole lot more…

Plus, having a coach to report to every day is a great way to keep yourself accountable and have an objective set of eyes tracking your progress as well.

Wrapping Up Muscle Soreness

Being sore after a workout isn’t a bad thing.

Far from it.

Sometimes I’m so sore after leg day I have trouble sitting on the toilet.

And by “have trouble” I really mean I slowly lower myself while holding onto the side-railing for support until I free-fall the remaining 6-inches.

leg dayBut…

And this is a big but…

That doesn’t mean the workout was effective.

Nor does it make it better than a workout that doesn’t get you sore.

Plain and simple, being sore doesn’t mean ANYTHING other than you’re sore.

Period.

So, from now on, when you’re trying to get a gauge of how good your workout or personal trainer is…don’t make flash judgements based on how hard you work, how much you sweat, or how sore you are the following day.

Instead, keep track of specific and measurable components that prove whether or not progress is being made. 

Anyone can make you sweat, pant, and sore (insert sexual joke here).

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Never Minimal. Never Maximal. Always Optimal.

-J






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