Written by Coach Charlotte Jones
In this article, we are going to explain why less soreness after a session can be a good sign. By the end of this article, you will better understand what soreness is, and why it happens.
Question: Do I need to feel sore after a workout in order to make progress?
Answer: You do not. And I’m going to explain why chasing soreness as an indicator of progress may leave you frustrated with your results and why less soreness after a session can be a good sign, especially if prior to that you’ve been experiencing long bouts of muscle pain or soreness.
When gauging progress and trying to determine the efficacy of a workout, soreness does not act as a direct indicator that you are truly moving the needle forward in your training or that you had an effective session — in fact, it may be trying to tell you quite the opposite.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)
This soreness, otherwise known as delayed onset muscle soreness (or DOMS), is more likely trying to communicate that you did something new that you may not be used to or maybe have not done in a while. This is common in those who are newer to the gym or new to any type of exercise. Even if you’re an experienced weight lifter, trying a new type of fitness class, for example, may leave you a bit tender the next day since your body is not used to that type of exercise and the muscles have been taxed in a different way. It dictates little about the overall efficacy of the workout.
It makes sense that there is an assumed link between soreness and efficacy, and thus progress, especially considering said feeling of soreness is so common when someone is first getting started. And rightly so — the muscles are being challenged in a new way. New trainees are often fortunate to experience a decent amount of progress during this time as well without needing to spend too much time in the gym, which, paired with the soreness, can be confusing. Still, as we’ve now discussed, soreness itself is not telling us that progress is being made.
Why Less Is More: Soreness Meets Progressive Overload
It is also a good sign when that soreness dissipates or becomes harder to come by. This is because when you train and damage your muscles repeatedly, they will gradually begin to experience less damage over time. This is a protective mechanism humans have developed to allow us to adapt when placed in new or stress-inducing situations to be less negatively impacted by them known as the repeated bout effect. This also lets us know that you’ve adapted to the new stress created from your workouts and can challenge yourself more, which is where the concept of progressive overload comes into play. Progressive overload is defined as gradually doing more in your training sessions over time by either adding more weight, a few more repetitions, performing the movement with better form, creating better tension within a specific exercise, etc.
While applying progressive overload is necessary for growth, we’re only able to do that if we feel good when we get in the gym. This is challenging when the DOMS we’re experiencing.
The DOMS one experiences create more joint stiffness and naturally limits our range of motion, making it hard to have a good session. This can also decrease your effort in your session and this domino effect will likely leave you spinning your wheels, at higher injury risk, and generally in more pain than is needed.
This leads us to the next thing that can be discerned if someone is experiencing lasting or excruciating soreness. In the gym, the movements we perform are constantly creating tiny tears within the muscle tissue — this might sound scary or dangerous, but it’s not. It is necessary for muscle growth and we must then rebuild and repair this damage outside of the gym in order to progress.
Being unable to adequately repair this damage is where said lasting soreness will come from and this indicates that your body is having a hard time recovering from what you’re asking it to do in the gym. For those who are a bit more experienced with lifting, dealing with this is not necessary, and this may actually be holding you back in your progress and performance — I think most of us can agree it is nearly impossible to have a solid session when you are still feeling it from your last one. The body is only able to rebuild so much at once and continually pushing the envelope past this natural capacity will not increase it nor get you where you want to go faster – the only way to do this is by focusing more deliberately on that rebuilding.
To better recover from what you’re asking your body to do in the gym, I encourage you to pull back a little on what you’re doing in the gym for a week and focus on recovering, known as a deload. Several factors fit under the relatively large umbrella that encompasses recovery, including sleep, stress management, adequate nutrition, hydration status, proper warm-up, and cool down, among others.
On a recent episode of the Physique Development podcast, Austin, Alex, and Sue dive into recovery, which you can find linked here. If you want to learn more about what you can do regarding that topic specifically—optimizing these factors as best as possible will undoubtedly impact your ability to recover, making it easier to do and thus putting you in a more optimal place to progress.
I also believe that the fitness space needs to do a better job of no longer glorifying soreness and instead focusing on the importance of recovery.
Not All Soreness Is Bad
In conclusion, this is not to say that all soreness is bad — a bit of muscle tenderness in the first 24 to 48 hours following a hard session is normal, especially if you performed a newer exercise or workout. When it goes beyond that, we may have other issues that need addressing. When we focus too much on soreness, we lose sight of what proper training recovery and, thus, progress, looks, and feels like.
Switching the focus from ‘how long will this session leave me sore’ to ‘how can I put myself in the best position to recover from what I’m asking my body to do’ will do wonders for how you feel on a regular basis and your progress. This emphasis on recovering well will keep you safer and progressing more efficiently for longer, so let’s shift the conversation to how we can best optimize recovery in our stressed-out world that struggles to get enough sleep!