I still know people who think that the pump they get from training, and the muscle soreness they experience the next day, are actual indicators that they had a good workout. Do you really have to wreck yourself in the gym to see results?
The main goal of this article is to look at muscle soreness in detail, explain why and how you get it, if it impacts your muscle gaining or fat loss, and what can you do about it (this will be addressed in the next article). Is the no pain no gain approach to training, of any use?
What Is DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness)
DOMS also known as delayed onset muscle soreness represents a feeling of “stiffness” that you feel 24 to 36 hours after an intense workout. It can last up to 3 days, and sometimes even more. It all depends on how much you train in that day. It is mostly seen in beginners, and people that focus more on the eccentric part (lengthening contractions) of training.
Now, there’s a confusion of what delayed onset muscle soreness is. Some people think that it’s a buildup of lactic acid that makes the muscle burn the next day. The reality is different. Lactic acid usually dissipates about 30 minutes after a training bout. It is impossible for it to last for days. You’ll find out what it is, in a moment. Keep reading.
Muscle soreness is mainly influenced by at least 3 big factors
- Your training status: A beginner will always get more muscle soreness compared to someone who’s been training for a while. When you start to workout for the first time, the next days will be the sorest you’ll experience in your life. The same happens when you train for a while but you switch to an exercise you never did before. You get sore the next day, and that muscle group you’ve just trained is going to get sore. In time, your body will get accustomed to the training stimulus, and you’ll experience less muscle soreness
- The Exercise You Do: Exercises that have a stretching component into them, can cause more muscle soreness compared to others. For me, the deadlift, the squat, and the bench press, are the 3 kings of muscle soreness
- Your Own Body Type: There are certain muscle groups that I never get sore at. For example, I almost never get sore in my upper back. I don’t know why but it seems it has accustomed with what I throw at it. No matter how much I train my back, I don’t seem to get sore anymore (when I do the exercises I’m used to). You also probably have a muscle group that won’t get sore no matter what you throw at it. If you wonder why it happens, I don’t have an answer for it
What Is “The Pump”
I’ll leave Arnie to explain it:
Let’s say you train your biceps, blood is rushing into your muscles, and that’s what we call – The Pump
When you get “The Pump”, your muscles will feel fuller, bigger, and tighter. The pump is mainly related to the volume, and intensity of exercise you are doing. Higher repetition ranges with small rest periods are correlated with an increased chance of getting a pump. If you want to chase the pump, just try to do a high repetition, low rest period bicep curl for a few sets, and I’ll guarantee you’ll get a pump at the end.
What Causes Muscle Soreness
Muscle soreness is influenced by exercise intensity. While most people believe that lactic acid causes muscle soreness, the truth is that studies found that muscle soreness seems to be caused by actual damage to the muscle tissue. The eccentric part of an exercise causes more muscle soreness compared to the concentric portion.
Eccentric training (lengthening of the muscle) causes more DOMS compared with concentric training. Eccentric actions are mostly performed by type II muscle fibers which are more susceptible to muscle damage compared to type I muscle fibers. The damage affects the connective tissue and muscle fibers that surround the muscle fibers. This is also known as microtrauma.
All that you have to know is that the damage happens when your muscle cells are subjected to a good amount of eccentric exercise. This can happen from any kind of training: weight training, running, jumping, etc. What happens here is simple: your connective tissue, and muscles, adapt to stress you are throwing at them
Is Pump Or Soreness Indicators Of A Good Workout?
The main question here is if muscle soreness affects muscle growth. Let’s see if delayed onset muscle soreness and muscle growth have something in common:
Your body is always reacting to tissue inflammation. Any time you get injured or your muscles are trained, inflammation is the main response. Your body is reacting to injury by bringing in certain cells that help with the repair of “injured” muscle cells.
Research shows that breakdown and inflammation of muscle tissue do occur in your muscles. The protein structures in your muscle fibers called Sarcomeres, contract and become damaged after exercise (especially after excentric type). Actual damage and inflammation of muscle tissue happen mostly when you train with high volume work. Crossfit is a good example
A study done by Crameri et al (2007) found that muscle damage is NOT correlated to muscle soreness. This study found that voluntary contractions created far less muscle fiber “damage” compared to electrical muscle stimulation. Electrical muscle stimulation is becoming popular nowadays with different abdominal belts, and programs that make you dress a suit filled with electrodes which are supposed to get you a good workout in like 10 minutes. Nonsense. Anyways, here comes the interesting fact: DOMS wasn’t different between these two groups.
The pain from muscle soreness was due to extracellular matrix inflammation. The extracellular matrix is the connective tissue that holds your muscle fibers in place.
From this study, we can draw the conclusion that connective tissue is actually the main source of muscle soreness and not the actual muscle fibers. What does this mean?
Aches, pain, and inflammation are not a good indicator of damaged muscle fibers but tissue damage. There’s no correlation between the pain you get and muscle fiber damage.
This means DOMS, and muscle growth is not related. This means DOMS is not a good indicator of an effective workout. Muscle gaining can happen without any inflammation. This can be seen in studies that show growth with no inflammation.
If you take a look in the real world, you can see that there’s no real correlation between DOMS and muscle growth.
I don’t get any muscle soreness but I can still see progress. I get less muscle soreness with higher frequency training, and I grow better than when I train a muscle group just once a week, and completely destroy it, leaving me with a nasty soreness days after the training bout.
Should I Even Care About DOMS?
This is highly subjective. For the most part, I would say no. In terms of monitoring the success of your training, the DOMS doesn’t do jack for muscle growth or fat loss. It is also NOT a good indicator of the effectiveness or lack of.
I want to be clear with you. You can have the best pump and soreness you’ve ever felt in your life because of that single workout but that doesn’t mean you have accomplished something. This is also a reason why there are a lot of people getting no results in the gym. They go after “the pump” or wreck their muscles, believing that it will make them grow. Or, you can feel like shit that workout, get no pump, get no soreness the next day, but get the required stimulus for muscle growth.
The main reason why you workout should be constant progress, not constant pain. I don’t get any soreness but I get results.
When Should I Care About Muscle Soreness?
I always look after a positive outcome from everything I do. I believe that a positive mindset is a powerful tool if you know how to use it. How can you put muscle soreness to use?
Even if delayed onset muscle soreness doesn’t do jack for muscle growth or fat loss, you can find a useful use for it: The validation that you correctly worked the muscle you targeted from that specific workout. What does that mean?
Simple. For example, if you are doing squats today, and you’ll feel soreness, and pain in your lower back but nothing in your quads, you have to take a look at your exercise form. This is one of the main uses I found when it comes to muscle soreness, and correct exercise form. I found a use for it.
You are training a specific muscle group and you should feel it in a certain extent. If you feel something else, it means you are either not doing the exercise correctly, or you are focusing on the wrong muscle.
Workouts Stop Working If You Don’t Get Sore?
There’s always the simple, and the detailed answer. I’ll make it as short as possible. If you are making progress in the gym on the same workout type, then you are growing. If your strength is improving, you are growing. If your body composition gets better, meaning less fat, and more muscle mass, you are growing.
These are good indicators of a workout that works, isn’t it? You should concentrate at getting visible results in muscle and strength growth. Muscle soreness is an invisible part of weight training. If you can’t see it, it doesn’t count as a visible improvement. You should always ask yourself these questions: “Was my workout effective today?” “Am I getting stronger, leaner, or faster?” “Am I looking better as time passes?”
How Do You Know If You Had A Good Workout?
A good workout is easy to spot. A good workout is not about the pump. A good workout is not about the muscle soreness you get the next day. All it matters when you workout is to reach your end goal: more muscle mass or more fat loss. Anything inbetween is nonsense. Anything that takes your focus away from these two goals is nonsense. “So, if the pump or soreness doesn’t show me I had a good weight training session, how do I find out, Flo?”.
Just do the exercises you are supposed to do without even caring about getting a pump, or waiting for the next day muscle soreness. Get inside the gym, fill your watter bottle, smash the weights, get out, eat. Get bigger, faster, and stronger. That’s the indication of continuous progress for me.
What To Do If You NEVER Get Sore?
The simple answer? Nothing.
As I’ve already said it until now, muscle soreness should not be your end goal. Your end goal should be constant progress. Don’t try to do more just to get muscle soreness. While this might help you mentally, it might also hinder your recovery. Just think about it for a moment.
Do you remember those TV ads that sold abdominal belts? You know, those belts that sent electric impulses through your abs, and made you think you’d get six pack abs because of all the soreness you’d get the next day?
Guess what? They didn’t worked. I haven’t seen a person reporting they got six pack abs out of those crappy marketing nonsense. I got my rock hard abs from constant squatting and deadlifting with correct range of motion. I want to see an ab belt, beat that:
The squat, and deadlift will train your core isometrically because it stabilizes your spine, and takes pressure off it. The thing is, even if I got my six packs just from squatting and deadlifting (I don’t do any abs exercises), I haven’t felt sore in years. Again: muscle soreness is not correlated with muscle growth. Definitive answer.
DOMS And Muscle Soreness Downsides
This advice is mostly geared towards beginners. They are the ones that can get literally demotivated because of extreme levels of muscle soreness. If they get an exaggerated response to training that comes with extreme muscle soreness, some beginners can correlate DOMS with injury, and this can make them quit. Or think that all this weight training stuff is too hard, and hurts too much.
This is also one of the main reasons why you won’t see a newbie the next training day if you saw him exaggerating with exercise volume the day before. This is not a good thing. I had my times when I couldn’t walk up or down the stairs because of all the retarded volume I was doing. I had times when I couldn’t lift a pen to write something.
I pushed it too fat but I remained motivated to continue push it no matter what because I have a thing that most people don’t have: PASSION. This pushes me forward no matter how tired, beat up, sad, or bored I am. The whole purpose of training is to grow, not to cripple yourself.
The last thing I want to talk about that related to delayed onset muscle soreness is the individual response to muscle soreness. DOMS usually appears as early as 8 to 12 hours after training. It increases for 24-35 hours, and peaks at around 48-72, after which it begins to decrease.
Too much out of something is usually bad. This is also the case with CrossFit style of workouts that are brought to an extreme level. There’s a condition called rhabdomyolysis that shows extreme levels of exercise can really f**k you up. Click here to read more about it
Wrapping It Up
The main goal of training should be continuous progress and growth. You should not chase the pain just because it feels the “right” thing to do. I’m stronger, and bigger than most guys at the gym I go, and I don’t get any muscle soreness the next day. Growth without muscle soreness? Nonsense. Is it a hack? No.
Were you chasing “The Pump” or “Muscle soreness” before reading this? Do you still consider chasing it?