So, I’ve changed my stance on muscle soreness. Maybe not a complete 180, but a seismic shift nonetheless.
My take on soreness used to be that soreness is not a good indicator of the effectiveness of a workout. But, that painted soreness with a broad and boring stroke. Moreover it made it seem like any soreness was bad, which it isn’t so it was time to set the record straight. I still believe there are much better indicators of a good workout than soreness let’s break it down even further by looking at the following:
- The Level of Muscle Soreness Should Correlate With Your Training Age
- Is It Soreness or Pain?
- Are You Chasing Soreness, or Are You Chasing a Good Workout?
While this article wont dive much into what could be considered a “good workout” without taking soreness into account I’ll give you a few I can think of right off the bat:
- How you feel after a workout (good/bad)
- Get a good sweat?
- You pushed yourself to be better than last time
Of course there are more factors you could look at, but those are a few that can be a pretty good barometer as to the effectiveness of your workout.
Now, back to soreness.
The Level of Muscle Soreness Should Correlate With Your Training Age
What does this mean? Does it mean beginners are more sore than advanced lifters or vice versa? No.
The truth is that you’re going to experience some kind of soreness no matter what your training age is. But, the key here is the type of soreness and how much soreness you can/should be able to handle.
As a beginner, you will be sore. Maybe not ungodly I need a wheelchair sore (or at least I hope not), but, sore enough to know you’ve been there. This is typically the sweet spot I like my beginner clients to stay in for a bit.
Why? Because everyone likes to “know they’ve been to the gym” but beginners don’t need to know what it’s like to struggle to sit on the toilet.
Know what I mean?
Another thing to point out with beginners is that in most cases I start them on a full body split, so the work is split up to where you’re not beating up one body part for an entire session. You’ll be mildly sore all over rather than your lats feeling like you were punched in the ribs by Rocky for an hour.
Another reason new lifters don’t need to gauge a workout based on how sore they are is because training adaptations (strength, muscle mass, fat loss etc.) come quickly and more easily in the first 6-12 months of your training career. That means if you are pushing yourself and consistently in the gym you won’t need extreme amounts of volume that typically cause extreme muscle soreness to get the results you want.
As you reach intermediate/advanced stages of lifting, again assuming consistency and pushing yourself in the gym, your volume must increase to continue to progress.
More volume tends to lend itself to being more sore.
Another thing to note is that in the intermediate and advanced stages your training split will probably progress towards a push/pull or upper/lower workouts which, with the added volume, targets each muscle group more densely within each workout.
Takeaways: you’ll be sore when you start out, but, to continue to progress your soreness will *probably* be more pronounced and even a little worse than beginner soreness the longer you train.
Is It Soreness or Pain?
What If An Exercise Hurts?
By hurt I’m meaning physical pain. I don’t mean the hurt that will happen when you lift hard and have a pump. Guys, you know what I’m talking about – getting’ some arms in before you head out on a Friday night.
Here are a few things your standard gym bro may say, and that you should know aren’t true:
-No Pain No Gain
-Pain Is Weakness Leaving the Body
-If It Ain’t Hurtin’ You Ain’t Tryin
Okay — so maybe I missed the boat here, but actual pain, in my experience, does lead to injury. Injuries lead to lost gym time which means lost training adaptations/body change/fat loss etc. I don’t know but that seems to be the exact opposite of the goal when exercising.
Maybe you’re into actual pain or something, I mean that’s fine, no judgment here, whatever.
Ok I’m judging you and I’m not sorry about it tbh.
The truth is this: every single body is made differently. Everyone is at a different point in their fitness journey. Some variations of an exercise just don’t jive well with some individuals. They may not be proficient in the movement, maybe they’re not at the level needed to perform it yet, or maybe they have an injury that contraindicates them doing that movement. Whatever the reason may be, a good coach should have an endless amount of exercises in his library that can mimic the effects of (x) but don’t cause literal pain. You should never stick with a program (or coach) who says there is no deviating from the plan or you’re doing it wrong. Period.
Get all the muscle ripping skin busting pumps you want, y’all. But please don’t lift through actual pain. If you don’t know what good substitutions are, ask a coach or shoot me an email and I will help you out.
Takeaways: You don’t get a medal for doing an exercise while crying. If you are experiencing physical pain while doing an exercise, find a swap or find someone who can give you a swap for it. There is always an exercise that can work the same muscle but be different enough to not be physically painful.
Are You Chasing Soreness, or Are You Chasing a Good Workout?
The goal with working out should be to achieve your desired goals, not to get super duper crazy sore.
The mirror doesn’t care how sore you are and it sure as hell doesn’t care if you worked out for 3 hours. If you don’t look how you want and you’re extremely sore all the time it’s time to rethink your training program.
Look, I get it, it’s easy to fall into a cycle of thinking that you need to feel murdered when you’re leaving the gym. But, if you feel absolutely wrecked every time you’re heading to your car chances are you’re working above your MRV (maximum recoverable volume). If we constantly go above the amount of work we can recover from we will always feel “wrecked” and you will not reach your goals as fast or effectively as you could be if you listened to your body and dropped the volume some.
It’s true that the more advanced you are, typically the more volume it is going to take to achieve the results you want. Which again, will probably mean you deal with more soreness. But, it’s important to note that few people ever achieve “advanced” lifting status to need extreme amounts of work.
Adding volume for the sake of volume may help your ego, but, beyond that it won’t do much for you.
You’ll get sore, yeah. But the truth is that you could probably do 70% of what you’re doing and get results faster, all while feeling better. You want to do enough work to illicit change, but you must be able to recover from that work for it to be the most efficient path to your goals.
Takeaways: Quality > Quantity. Always.
You’re going to get sore. Just don’t let muscle soreness define what a good workout means to you.