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Is Soreness a Sign of Progress in the Gym?

There’s a reason “sore” and “hardcore” rhyme. It’s in your bones, in your blood, and your muscles. There is something primal about those delicious waves of tender pain that radiate up your quads, snake up your hips, and crash upon your glutes the day after a tough leg workout…it’s proof that you actually DID something significant to your muscles. The pain is evidence that you’ve shredded up your muscle fibers, and now the rebuilding process will begin, making you stronger, faster, and more ripped.

The proof is in the pain.

But there are those days, usually after you’ve been at the same activity for awhile, where the workouts don’t leave you with the same burn, and you start to think that maybe you’re not getting sore because you’re not “working out right,” and it’s time for something new.

I’ve heard this from clients, random dudes at the gym, and faceless posters on Internet forums. The idea takes many forms, but it comes down to this:

If you want to make gains, you’ve gotta get sore.

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If you want to make gains, you gotta get sore.

 

Is it true?

An article in Strength and Conditioning Journal summarizes the theoretical and practical underpinnings for this idea, and I think its sheds some practical light on this common question.

The article addresses two key questions:

  1. Is there a theoretical basis in research to support the idea that delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a good indicator of muscular adaptations?
  2. What does empirical data say about the connection between DOMS and muscular adaptations?

The short answer to #1 is YES. Soreness can be a sign of muscle damage, and muscle damage is often a precursor to growth. Here’s the logic:

Soreness is a byproduct of unfamiliar exercise, and it occurs as part of the inflammatory aftermath of microcopic damage to muscles. Damage to muscles is associated with musculary hypertrophy (growth). Therefore, since soreness is a sign of damage, and damage is a precursor to growth, it makes sense to assume that soreness is a sign of growth.

The authors give three ways that muscular damage may lead to muscular growth:

1. The inflammatory response.

Various researchers postulate that cells called macrophages secrete substances that promote muscle growth, and other cells called neutrophils may signal other inflammatory cells to promote regeneration of the muscle.

2. Activation of satellite cells.

In response to muscular stress, cells called myoblasts multiply and fuse to existing cells, promoting remodeling and increasing the capacity for protein synthesis.

3. Cell swelling.

Dang this part was hard to understand. Here’s a key quote: “Cellular swelling is theorized to regulate cell funciton, stimulating anabolism via increasing protein synthesis and decreasing protein breakdown.” Basically, cell swelling is associated with kick-starting a muscle-growing environment by making and keeping essential protein.

There are a few caveats to the soreness/muscle damage/muscle growth connection, however. Muscle damage is not REQUIRED for muscular adaptation, according to other research. For example, research has shown that satellite cells respond to exercise that is both damaging AND non-damaging.

Theoretically, it makes sense that DOMS is related to muscular adaptation. And while soreness has been shown to be RELATED to muscle damage, it has yet to be demonstrated to be a NECESSARY precursor to muscular change.

Which leads us to question #2 (THE PROOF), and some specific words of caution:

Do You Really Need DOMS?

DOMS may indicate muscle damage, but it doesn’t always indicate how much. For example, X amount of soreness does not = X amount of muscle damage. MRI evidence shows that the time most muscle damage occurs during exercise DOES NOT correlate to the time of most extreme soreness.

DOMS is not the same for everyone, and it’s not the same across muscle groups. For example, bodybuilders report lots of growth in muscles that never get sore. Some people report soreness of varying degrees from similar workouts, and yet there is not evidence to show that the muscular adaptations fail to occur without soreness. In other words, you can end up with two people of similar buffness. One gets sore, the other does not.

 You can still get jacked without getting sore.

Some activities that aren’t associated with muscular growth (cycling and jogging), still cause ridiculous DOMS. Conclusion: something besides DOMS is causing muscular growth. You might be thinking, well my goal isn’t to get big, it’s to get a “good workout.” DOMS dissipates as one becomes more familiar with activities like cycling and jogging as well, so you can still get a killer cardiovascular workout without the soreness.

bike

I don’t always get DOMS, but when I do, it doesn’t make my muscles grow.

muscle groups vary on how sore they get, and yet they may both experience similar rates of growth.

Exercises that place the most stress on longer muscles have been shown to produce the most amount of DOMS. Short muscles don’t produce as much DOMS, and yet they still demonstrate muscle growth. So, you have two types of muscles: one type gets sore, the other doesn’t, and yet they both grow. Has to be something other than DOMS.

DOMS doesn’t last.

Lastly, and most importantly: Repeated bouts of exercise have been demonstrated to reduce the amount of sorenesss in a muscle group. These repeated bouts, however, can continue to spur muscular adaptation. Anectdotally, you’ll find this to be true if you ask someone who has trained for awhile: “Have you ever had a time where you got stronger without getting sore?” The answer will almost always be yes. In fact, I notice that if I train to the point of soreness now, it’s usually a sign that I’m over training. I feel weak and banged up, kinda like I’m being held together with duct tape.

sore

You should look like this after finishing a triathlon. Not because you spend all your workouts trying to get sore.

 

One final cautionary tale: Too much soreness can be a sign that you’ve taken your body too far, and it’s ability to repair itself will be compromised. In addition, form may be compromised, which can lead to acute injury. Now you’re out for even longer!

So is soreness a sign of progress? Like most research, the answer is the anticlimactic “more study is needed.”

It’s an indicator, but a relatively weak one. I think it’s safe to say that you definitely DO NOT need to get sore in order to make progress toward your fitness goals. You’ll get sore at the beginning, and periodically as you make changes in selection and intensity of exercise. But your progress is not dependent on how sore you get. You shouldn’t avoid an exercise because it makes you sore, but chasing after DOMS as an end in itself is a foolish pursuit.

 

Source:

Schoenfelf, Brad and Contreras, Brett.”Is Postexercise Muscle Soreness a Valid Indicator of Muscular Adaptations?”  Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. October 2013 – Volume 35 – Issue 5 – p 16–21

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