“I’m so sore after leg day! That was a great workout!!”
Saying this is like saying, “The sky is blue. I have a pet cat.”
These two statements, while perfectly true, have nothing to do with one another!
In other words:
How sore your muscles are is not an indicator as to how great a workout was.
Muscle soreness does not equate to workout effectiveness!
So then, what do sore muscles mean?
They mean you made your muscles do something they aren’t used to doing. You introduced a change, either in workout type, workout volume, workout intensity, or workout frequency, and your muscles are in the process of adapting so they can perform more efficiently next time.
Sore muscles are simply the natural consequence of unaccustomed physical exertion.
Muscle Soreness 101
If you've ever worked out, or done any type of physical activity, then you've experienced muscle soreness before. Delayed onset muscle soreness, aka “DOMS”, typically rears its ugly head about 6-8 hours after a workout, though it peaks about 24-72 hours after.
Contrary to popular belief, it has nothing to do with lactic acid buildup in the muscles! Rather, it comes about due to tiny, microscopic tears in your muscles, which lead to inflammation and a heightened sense of pain.
Most soreness is produced by exercises with significant eccentric (lengthening) components.
When these exercises are done, the muscles being worked eccentrically will almost always become sore until they adapt.
Take squats, for example. Squats use the quads eccentrically, hence the soreness you will feel after finishing a new leg day workout! This soreness will continue until your legs adjust to the eccentric work. If you continue to squat without changing any variables (form, reps, sets...), then you’ll soon realize you’re no longer getting sore. Change a variable, though, and it’s (temporarily) back to aching quads again!
This type of muscle adaptation your body makes is also referred to as the repeated bout effect.
Muscle Soreness and Efficiency
Often times, you’ll catch people wearing their DOMS like badges of honor. That’s because they come from the line of thinking where the more sore they are, the more efficient their workout was, and vice versa.
The only thing soreness is indicating is familiarity (or, rather, lack thereof) to an exercise. If a move that used to leave you sore for days now only leaves a light ache a few hours after (if that), that doesn’t mean it is no long effective, it means that your body is changing. It’s a sign that you’re getting fitter!
Less soreness means the muscles are getting better at healing and recovering, and recovered muscles are more likely to develop and build more strength and endurance.
Muscle soreness is not the indicator for workout efficiency, improved performance/strength is!
You’re saying the more fit you are, the less you’ll experience DOMS?
...well, no. While I said less soreness means you’re becoming fitter, I don’t mean that the more fit you get, the less sore you’ll be.
Remember, DOMS is a result of a muscle being lengthened a little more than it’s used to and experiencing small, micro tears. So long as you’re introducing new moves or elements to your training, you’ll experience these tears-- no matter how fit you are. Soreness is just the name of the game for all fitness levels until adaptation can occur!
Dealing with DOMS
Occasional muscle soreness is a standard part of training and is going to happen, so, what can you do about it? Believe it or not, stretching is not the answer. Recent studies have found that pre and post workout stretching have no effect on mitigating DOMS**.
Instead, take to foam rolling, contrast showers (alternating between hot and cold water), Epsom salt baths, and sleep to combat the soreness. As well, you can fine tune your nutrition and supplementation to treat the aches. Try upping your protein intake to increase protein synthesis, take a fish oil/omega-3 supplement to reduce inflammation, and new research in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that reaching for supplements containing saffron may also help to alleviate DOMS. Of course, you should also keep an eye on your day-to-day diet to ensure you’re taking in enough nutrients to help your body heal.
**No, that does not mean you don’t have to stretch- stretching is still important in preventing injury.
Muscle soreness will come and go, but your strength and progress will stay! Don’t hinge how effective a workout was on how sore your body is.
Remember, no pain, still gain.