No Pain, No Gain? – Part 2: Is muscle soreness an accurate indication of how hard I work out?

So if I’m not sore from a workout, does that mean that workout must have failed? Or is soreness the opposite – a bad sign that suggests I have done something wrong to my body?

 

With the research and evidence that has been produced on the topic thus far, it is best to view soreness as a side effect rather than the end goal of a workout. The work of Professor Geoffrey Goldspink in the field of anatomy and development biology showed that muscle genes are regulated largely by mechanical stimulation (think of the loading itself) rather than mechanical damage (such as exercise induced soreness)[1]. Goldspink’s conclusive work suggests that the goal of a workout should not be to increase muscular soreness or damage, but to improve the body in some way – whether that be increased muscular definition, strength, work capacity, intensity etc.

Some of you may still question yourselves sometimes as to why you got sore after training even though you had the best nutrition & recovery methods in place, the training was only slightly progressive, and you didn’t really do too much outside of the norm. This is okay, it happens from time to time when you push your body to slightly higher levels and try a few new things. This is especially true when you switch to a new program or exercise. Your body may not be used to the new type of loading and is not efficient at handling it. As a result, you get a bit more sore than usual.

Going into the gym to push yourself a bit more than usual is not a bad thing – it’s actually a key to success over time. On the other hand, going into the gym to try and create debilitating soreness should not be the aim and could end badly – in injury and/or delayed progress. If the aim is to be as sore as possible, then most people would benefit greatly if they threw themselves in front of an oncoming bus. Going to the gym to completely annihilate yourself is not the most intelligent way of getting towards your goals.

Soreness can also be the result of the body overloading the wrong muscle groups with bad posture. This is even more eminent with incorrect lifting technique. If soreness really is the main goal of training, then it implies that the exercise that induced the soreness must have been performed correctly. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just because your lower back muscles are sore after every bout of squats you perform, doesn’t mean the exercise is giving you a benefit – in fact, the contrary is true in this scenario.

 

So if soreness isn’t an accurate measure of how my training is going, then what is?

Milo

You may be familiar with the Greek legend of Milo and his calf. The story goes that Milo used to pick-up a new-born calf and carry it every day. As the calf grew bigger, Milo grew bigger and stronger until the calf turned into an Ox. This simplistic illustration is often used by trainers and coaches to explain the concept of progressive overload. Progressive overload is the gradual application of load or training stresses applied in order to advance the trainee towards a goal (usually increased size and/or strength). There are a many forms of progressive overload (I can think of at least a dozen or more ways in a strength training context alone). The form of overload illustrated in the legend of Milo draws analogy to the most widely used form – lifting heavier loads over time.

The story of Milo and his calf may be helpful for the beginner’s standpoint when initial progression is constant and linear. However, if results with this linear progression could go on forever then a gym rookie who adds 2.5kg to his initial 40kg bench press every week, would be bench pressing a whopping 580kgs after 4 years. As you may have guessed, the human body doesn’t really work this way (especially not long term). The body is subject to the law of diminishing returns, and advances in training (and adaptations to that training) tend to happen in more of a fluctuating nature. If you have trained for a significant period of time, you may have experienced this yourself – one week you may add 10kg to an exercise while at other times you may stall on the same weight for months on end. There are physiological explanations for this phenomenon, however these go beyond the scope of this article. The main message here is to shift your focus to looking at your overall long term progress. And it is better to view longer term progress more in terms of fluctuations than linear progression as illustrated below:

 

cycle

cycle 2

As one becomes more advanced, it could be argued that peaks in performance become further apart on average with training advancement. This is why you tend to find beginners measuring their progress over periods of just days and weeks whereas advanced trainees measure their progress over years and decades.

Whether you are a novice or a veteran, chasing pain should not be the main aim of your training – nor is it the smartest way of achieving long term goals. The main purpose is to not chase soreness or pain but to chase progress and results. As we saw in our example with the bodybuilder, his lats grew progressively bigger as he got better, yet he was never sore from his training.

[1] “The brains behind the brawn”. Goldspink, Geoffrey. New Scientist, 1 August 1992

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