As a trainer I see it every single day, someone judging the quality of their workouts by how sore they are the following 1-2 days. Often times, if they are not sore from a workout they feel like they didn’t accomplish anything or that it wasn’t an effective workout at all! But this couldn’t be further from the truth! While the body’s physical reaction to the breaking down and rebuilding of muscle tissue can certainly be used as a gauge at times, it should by no means be the only consideration when judging a workouts effectiveness.
Another term for soreness is ‘delayed onset muscle soreness’ or DOMS. Soreness will usually start anywhere from several hours to a day after your workout, and can last as long as 2-3 days in some cases. Any time your body repeatedly performs an action that it is not used to, you will be sore. The less used to the action your body is, the more sore you will be. On the other side of things, the more used to the action your body is, the less sore you will be. This is the explanation as to why runners will get less and less sore as their body gets used to running, and why weight lifters get less and less sore after their bodies become accustomed to working out.
So now that we know muscle soreness occurs when a person's body is subjected to new and unaccustomed movements, wouldn’t it make sense that over time you should expect to feel less and less soreness after each workout, considering that you end up doing a lot of the same movements? So why on earth are people still using that as their sole means for judging workout effectiveness? It's quite discerning as a trainer to hear a client tell you, “I didn’t get sore at all from our last workout, I must not have tried hard enough….” with a frown on their face. When in reality I know they busted their butt because I was there watching them do it!
Lets move on to what should be the SOLE determinant of a successful workout… did you make PROGRESS? Progress can occur in a myriad of different ways… you can go up in weight from your previous attempt, you can do more reps or sets than you were able to in your previous attempt, you could have lost 2 lbs in a week, you could be fitting into your skinny jeans again, etc… ALL of these examples are progress (steps in a positive direction). As long as you are and have been making progress in some way, shape or form, then your workouts ARE effective… sore or not.
Lets look at client Z for example. Client Z comes in to train for the first time and does a total body day including squats, bench press, chinups and stiff legged deadlifts. The next 2 days client Z feels quite sore in all muscle groups used and therefore feels that the workout must have been effective! 3 months later client Z comes and reports to the trainer that he/she feels like the workouts aren’t as good or he/she must not be trying hard enough because there is no longer soreness where there once was from performing the same exercises. Yet at the same time, Client Z’s squat weight has gone up 25lbs, bench press has gone up 15lbs, client Z can now do 5 unassisted chin-ups (compared to only 5 with band assistance), and stiff legged deadlifts have increased by 20lbs. While weights might not have increased on each exercise each and every session, a slow steady progression was evident, and that right there should be the basis of an effective workout regimen.
Once and a while you will still find that you become ridiculously sore after a workout (even after doing it for a long time). And each and every time this happens, it is because you did something DIFFERENT during that workout that your body was not used to. You could have done more reps, sets, weight. You could have gone deeper into your squats, or added an iso-hold to your walking lunges, or do eccentric (lowering phase) pullups…. Your body was not as accustomed to these moves so they made you super sore all over again. Also taking an extended period of time off and then working out hard again will make you very sore too!
Another thing to consider now is, how often should you switch up your routine? In my opinion it is good to switch up some things every now and then, but mainly to keep things fresh, not to feel sore again. You should continue to perform the exercises that you want to get better at, this should go without saying. If you want to get better at barbell bench press, it doesn’t make sense to take a month off from performing it, you will not improve upon it that way. There are also ways of switching it up that don’t require changing the exercise completely, for example you can perform dumbbell bench press for a couple weeks instead of barbell bench press. If you find that eventually you’ve hit a plateau on almost all of your lifts, then go right ahead and switch it up! But again, keep doing the ones you want to improve upon!
So lets reiterate. Muscle soreness occurs when the body experiences a stimulus that it is not accustomed to. As the body becomes accustomed to this new stimulus, it will become less and less sore each time it is performed (again, unless you continually change it up by adding weight, reps, sets, etc…). Therefore, muscle soreness should not be a judge of an effective workout, especially for those who have been working out for a long time. Instead, an effective workout should be judged by progress being made, in any way, shape or form.
Thanks for reading, and keep it healthy!
Fitness Fusion ACSM CPT