Aaron Chy, BSc General, PharmD Student
Have you ever put in a hard day’s work, woke up the next day feeling a little sore, and patted yourself on the back for getting a good workout in? Or on the other hand, have you ever woke up the next day not feeling sore, and wondered if you really worked hard enough?
When it comes to working out – at any fitness level, results are never immediate. It’s a long process, and the rewards come gradually with time. But for a day to day measure of progress, most people use muscle soreness, formally known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness as a sign to judge how well they’ve worked out. If they’re sore and achy the next day, then they’ve put in work, if they feel just fine, then it means they’ve slacked off.
As it turns out though, muscle soreness may not be a good indicator of workout quality; in fact, it may even be a bad sign rather than a good one.
What Causes Muscle Soreness?
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS for short is the stiff, tender feeling in your muscles that occurs one to five days after heavy physical exertion. DOMS is a unique type of soreness in that additional movement and work tends to reduce the pain for a short time – discomfort is usually the worst first in the morning and is typically manageable near the end of the day. Usually, with the right balance of training and recovery, DOMS goes away within a week.1
What causes DOMS? Under stress, our muscle fibres experience damage in the form of microscopic tears. This damage slowly releases different chemicals that increase sensitivity to pain, which leads to next-day soreness.1 As the body heals the damage over time, more muscle is added to the original fibres, which causes an increase in both size and strength. This is called hypertrophy, and it’s the basis of lifting heavy weights in the gym to put on muscle.2
Casual gym-goers often use DOMS as a measure of how hard they’ve worked out, and they’re not entirely wrong. But the method isn’t perfect; certain exercises may not result in DOMS despite the benefit they have for your body, and using a sign of damage as an indicator of progress may not be the best idea for safety.
Soreness Isn’t an Indicator of Progress
One group of researchers put together two groups of individuals and subjected them to the same workout routine. The only difference was one group was given a gradual pre-training workout routine three weeks in advance, while the other group was thrown right in.2
Following the end of the study, the individuals who did not receive pre-training reported greater soreness and up to five-times more damage as indicated by blood tests. However, there was no difference in the muscle strength and size gained between the two groups.2
In other words, gradually increasing workout intensity led to the same results as going from zero to 100 off the bat, but without all the soreness and pain. The obvious benefit here is a person who isn’t injured or in pain can fit more workouts in than someone who can’t get out of bed in the morning.
What Does This Mean for You
If you take one thing away from reading this, it’s that consistency trumps intensity, every single time. It might be tempting to go with the “no-pain, no-gain” attitude and give it everything you’ve got in the gym. But if two steps forward means three steps back, then you’re still losing. If you intend to make any long-term progress, commitment and staying reasonable are the keys to success.
Stay tuned throughout the week for another piece on how to manage DOMS if and when it does occur, and some myth-busting on current trends.
As always, we hope you took away something valuable from this piece. If you have any questions or concerns regarding this article or others, feel free to reach out to us on Instagram, Facebook, or at email@example.com with your feedback. We’d love to hear from you.
- Armstrong, R. (1984). Mechanisms Of Exercise-Induced Delayed Onset Muscular Soreness: A Brief Review.
- Flann, K. L., Lindstedt, S. L., LaStayo, P. C., McClain, D. A., & Hazel, M. (n.d). Muscle damage and muscle remodeling: no pain, no gain?. Journal Of Experimental Biology, 214(4), 674-679.