Muscle Soreness: Is it Necessary?

You’ve probably heard the saying, “No pain, no gain,” more times than you can count, but does this really hold true when we talk about training and long-term adaptations? One of the most common concerns I see with both my in-person and online training clients has to do with soreness. More often than not, I see others striving for soreness as if their training week depends on it, allowing them to fall into the mindset that soreness = progress (aka changes in muscle mass, performance, “things are happening,” etc.) This isn’t exactly the case.

First, it would be appropriate to discuss what muscle damage or muscle soreness is, which is an interesting topic we can go back and forth over. While we still don’t know everything there is to know about the mechanisms behind muscle damage and muscle hypertrophy, we can describe muscle damage as something that happens through ‘injury’ or inflammation of muscle or connective tissues (1).

Soreness is inherently a ‘side effect’ of our training. For example, when we start a new training program or try out some new exercises and training techniques we’ve never done before, we’re bound to feel it to some extent. That’s normal – placing a new stimulus on untrained or trained individuals is still placing new stress on the body, and we eventually wind up adapting to that stimulus in order to make the changes we desire over time (also known as a progressive overload). Progression in and later adapting to training is something known as the “repeated bout effect,” which refers to the reduction in muscle damage over time.2 A good example here is how you may notice is that you aren’t nearly as sore as you were in the first 1-2 weeks of training. This leads us to the idea that that initial muscle soreness isn’t a necessary factor in obtaining long term muscular adaptations.

Soreness is not the hallmark for effective training sessions

Let me emphasize that last point – desirable changes in our physiques, strength, performance, etc. happen over time, so the recurring idea that soreness = progress wouldn’t really make too much sense here since we know that those larger changes won’t happen overnight (or over one week in this case), as the minimum time for true muscle hypertrophy is an area that still needs further research into.

Progressively overloading requires us to place enough stress on the body over time (via a variety of methods) in order to then adapt, repair, and grow. The bigger goal here should be to make incremental progress in context-specific areas (so whether you’re trying to build muscle, strength, endurance). Aiming for constant muscle damage/soreness should not be the hallmark for having a good training session or a successful week overall. Actually, it may even hinder progress at that point by impairing recovery from those sessions, impeding athletic performance, and making muscular hypertrophy more challenging over time (1).

Overall, we don’t have to feel broken and worn down to train effectively! We just have to train smart and with intent, and adding those novelty movements/training techniques here and there can keep things interesting and challenging.

Damas, F., Libardi, C.A., Ugrinowitsch, C. The development of skeletal muscle hypertrophy through resistance training: the role of muscle damage and muscle protein synthesis. European Journal of Applied Physiology 2018; 118: 485-500.

Keefe, G., Wright, C. An intricate balance of muscle damage and protein synthesis: the key players in skeletal muscle hypertrophy. J Physiology 2016; 594.24: 7157-7158.

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