Let’s Stop Trying to Make Our Muscles Sore

You probably remember the first time you started a workout program. You shocked the body with a series of movements that it was unaccustomed to and you were likely very sore for days afterward.  That soreness was an indication that you were stressing the body in ways that it hadn’t been challenged in some time. You worked some long neglected muscles and that work was clearly evident by how you felt for the next few days.

The unfortunate consequence of that obvious cause and effect relationship is that many people only associate an effective workout with how sore their muscles are in the days that follow. They can come to believe that their workout was somehow ineffective if they can spring out of bed the next day with no ill effects.


It’s no secret that in order to build muscle you need to tear it down first (by lifting weights) so that you stimulate repair and growth.  The extent of the that breakdown does not need to be so much that you cannot walk the next day. Long lasting, extreme muscle soreness, or DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), can be counter productive if experienced frequently. In all likelihood you’re not recovering enough before your next workout and thus your performance may suffer and you’ll just induce further damage that may take even longer to recover from.

The good news is that your muscles will adapt to the stress load you place them under. A new workout program that causes pretty substantial muscle soreness the first week should not create the same effect on your body the third week. That doesn’t mean that the program has lost its effectiveness, it’s just that your muscles have adapted to the new movements, loads, or volume. Progression at that point should come naturally, providing you are following an effective program.

Instead of using muscle soreness as a gauge of a program’s effectiveness other, more concrete measurements should be used. Are you trying to add size? Well maybe assess your scale weight or specific body measurements. Looking to lose fat? Again the scale, a set of calipers, and a tape measure will be your friend. Trying to get stronger? You should be lifting heavier weight as you progress through the program, or at least performing more sets and reps with the current weight.

Personally I am all for getting stronger and staying lean, but that doesn’t mean I need to trash my body every workout session. I love going hard and challenging myself. Every once in awhile you’ve got to have those workouts that test you physically and mentally. If you’ve been lifting for any length of time and endured setbacks and injuries due to going too hard in the gym dialing back the intensity so you live to lift another day is a smart approach.

Your workout regimen shouldn’t leave you so sore that your normal everyday function is impaired. Yeah, after a hard leg focused day it may be a little uncomfortable to walk, but if you can’t even bend down to play with your kids or have to decline a walk with your significant other due to how sore you are is it really worth it?

I, for one, lift to stay in shape so that activities of daily living are a pleasurable experience. I want to be able to move pain free and be ready for anything that comes my way. Beating myself up in the gym to the point at which that is not possible is counter productive.

That said, it is important to vary up your routine from time to time. This can be introducing a new lift, adding some volume, or playing with the intensity. This variation is important to keep you progressing and avoid the dreaded plateaus that come with following the same program for a long period of time. I recently added barbell deadlifts back into my programming after taking some time off to heal a low back issue. I knew it would a mistake to lift anywhere near my previous PR so I did just a couple of sets at about 70%, despite feeling like I could lift much more.

I was still sore for a few days after that, but not so much to the point that I needed someone to pull me up from the couch to get moving. This week I added in a little volume to my deadlifts and felt great the next day. To me, it was a much better workout than the previous week because I was able to lift more, and I did not view it as a failure or lesser training session because I was not super sore afterward. Actually my lack of soreness was a bonus.

A workout shouldn’t crush you. It should challenge you, but leave you in a position to progress in subsequent workouts. We should be building real world, usable strength that we can, you know, actually use in the real world. It doesn’t have to hurt to be effective, and remembering that can be the key to improving the quality of your life through training, rather than having it tear you down workout after workout.


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