My question is, how come I haven’t been getting sore? I’ve been lifting heavier, getting my protein in, but the last few weeks I only feel sore or tender sometimes. Makes me wonder if I’m not working hard enough, but it feels like I am when I’m in the gym!
Soreness is absolutely NOT the measure of how hard you’ve worked!
The underlying biology of delayed onset muscle soreness, which typically hits 12-18 hours after exercise and is often called “DOMS” by lifters) is not very well understood, but we do know it’s the result of microscopic muscle damage (which is how we get muscles to grow) and that a few specific scenarios tend to cause it.
Beginners suffer most
Many people who have just started strength training experience DOMS because their muscles are experiencing a new type of stress. This almost always improves with time and experience—typically within a few weeks of consistent training doing the same exercises.
This is a fun and quick little video that explains quite well why beginners tend to experience DOMs the most.
Why do experienced lifters get DOMS?
But DOMS doesn’t only affect novices. Regardless of experience level, many of us get sore whenever we first start doing either a brand-new exercise, or something we haven’t done in a long time.
For example, I’m sitting here answering this question with God-awful DOMS in my quads. I’ve been lifting for 7 years, but I just started a brand-new training block and my coach gave me a bunch of exercises I’ve never done before, plus a few (reverse lunges, ugh!) that I haven’t dealt with in quite a while.
Pow. My old buddy DOMS came roaring back for the first time in many months.
We don’t understand everything about what’s happening with DOMS on the microscopic level, but we do know it most often results from eccentric exercises that apply force to a muscle while it’s in a stretched position
A while ago, I read an article by a personal trainer for other professional trainers. He wrote that no matter how much he explains that soreness means nothing, he always seems to have a few clients who insist on measuring their success by how much pain they feel after their sessions with him. He finally threw up his hands and started to intentionally program more eccentric exercises for those clients, because he knows that will cause the soreness they crave.
Not sure whether or not that approach is ethical, but you have to give the guy points for creativity!
So, how do you know you’re working hard enough?
If you shouldn’t use soreness as an indicator, how can you tell whether or not you’ve worked as hard as you could have?
The answer is, pay attention to how many reps and sets you’re able to do while training, and what you have left in the tank.
Generally speaking, the most progress gets made by working at 70-80% of your capacity. So, if you’re doing sets of 10-12 reps and feel like you could do more than 1-2 additional reps, increase the weight (or make another modification to achieve progressive overload).
If you’re doing lower-rep work for strength, same thing
If you’re new to strength training, be aware that novice lifters nearly always underestimate how much more work they are actually capable of doing, often by a lot. It takes practice to actually learn how to work hard enough.
If you’re new to this lifting gig, and your muscles start burning and your brain says, “Hey! We’re done here!” be skeptical.
Most of the time, you can bang out a few more reps. It’ll burn. It’ll be hard. It’s supposed to be hard! If you’re not feeling pretty significant discomfort during the last few reps of a set, THAT is a very good indicator that you need to work harder on that exercise.
When to pay attention to DOMS
While soreness after a training session doesn’t mean you worked particularly hard, persistent soreness (meaning you’re always sore after a workout) may mean you’re not recovering well.
In fact, my nutrition coach tracks soreness as a recovery metric. If my daily soreness starts to spike, that tells us we need to tweak something to improve my recovery.
However, even being frequently sore doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Some people just seem to be more genetically predisposed to DOMS, and others never experience it. If you’re paying proper attention to your recovery and doing everything right, and you’re still often sore, that may just be your genetic lot in life.
Regardless, occasional soreness isn’t bad or good per se. It doesn’t mean you worked hard, or didn’t work hard, and it certainly should not stop you from training.
In fact, moving around often helps alleviate DOMS, so if you find yourself feeling sore and aren’t scheduled to exercise, take a walk, foam roll, or do some other form of active recovery.
A caveat here that we’re talking about general muscle soreness, not sharp sudden pain or involvement of joints. These can of course indicate injury, so if you experience that type of pain, it’s always prudent to consult a doctor or physical therapist rather than training through it.
Bottom line, there’s no need to worry about run-of-the-mill soreness
DOMS happens. It’s not fun, but it’s harmless. If you’re lucky enough not to experience it, throw a party.
If you do find yourself dealing with DOMS, the best way to combat it is to keep strength training so your muscles get used to the workload… and then chances are very good you’ll have to deal with being sore much less often.
Got questions about lifting, training, competing, or any related topics? Send ‘em my way!