No Pain, No Gain? – Part 4: Soreness & Progress

So what is the best way to gauge how effective a routine is?

The best way to judge the effectiveness of a workout is actually quite simple – was it better than your previous efforts and workouts? Is there a pattern of improvement rather than regression over time? If so, then you have made progress and your body will adapt accordingly. So what factors can you look at to judge whether your workout was better or worse than your previous efforts? There are a number of training variables that you can go by to provide you with this insight. I will address the main ones below. The first one on the list has been covered already:

  • Increasing the relative weight used (intensity)
  • The same relative weight used for more reps and/or sets (volume)
  • Shorter rest periods and workout time for the same amount of volume & intensity used (density)
  • More intensity and/or volume in the same amount of workout time (density)
  • Decreasing the speed of the eccentric portion (lowering phase) of the lift using the same relative weight. i.e. greater time under tension
  • Increasing the speed/effort of the concentric portion (up phase) of the lift using the same relative weight
  • Lifting the same relative weight and volume more often each week (frequency)

As you can see, the above measures are not a subjective opinion you form, or feeling you go by. They require keeping a journal or training log. This is one of the main reasons why most people fail in the gym and look, perform and feel the same year in and year out – they fail to keep an accurate, objective record on how they are performing! If you don’t know how you are tracking, you have a very limited and distorted view of progress. If you don’t keep records for your training (or have a coach that does it for you), then start now! You will be amazed at how quickly your focus and motivation increases.

 

What can we conclude so far?

So far we know that:

  1. The common culprits of DOMS are heavy or accentuated eccentrics (lowering phases of a lift), high shock absorbing movements, and performing several attempts at handling very challenging loads. However, there is a bigger picture to look at which includes other causes related to lack of rest/recovery, inadequate nutrition, and new exercises or physical stimuli.
  1. Although strenuous exercise can create damage to associated muscle fibres and cells, it has never been proven that this is a necessary and sufficient condition for increased strength or muscular development.
  1. The magnitude of the soreness isn’t an accurate indication of the quality of your workout. Exercising to create debilitating soreness should not be the aim of training and could end badly with possible injury and/or delayed progress. The main purpose of training is to pursue progress and results.
  1. Whether or not to train with soreness is dependent on the severity of soreness. If the soreness is mild and it doesn’t hinder your capacity to perform at an adequate level, it’s perfectly possible (even advisable) to train using exercises involving the sore muscles. However, excessive soreness can cause issues with performance by reducing mobility and/or strength, interfering with the productivity of a workout.
  1. Exercising a sore muscle doesn’t halt or delay the rebuilding process – the body is in a constant state of rebuilding and goes on repairing regardless.
  1. Perception is strong. It’s easy to make a false connection between muscular soreness and the effectiveness of a training routine. A false connection can also be made with the absence of DOMS too – just because you are not sore after training, it does not mean that your workout was not optimal.
  1. The best way to judge the effectiveness of your training is to look at your results and whether there a pattern of improvement rather than regression over time. There are a number of objective measures that can be used to determine progress.
  1. The best way to keep track of your results is by keeping records and a training log. This is one of the main reasons why most people fail in the gym and look, perform and feel the same year in and year out. If you don’t keep records for your training (or have a coach that does it for you), then start now!

 

The take home message

Using soreness as a gauge of training effectiveness is like saying that you’re not getting enough Vitamin D unless you go out and get badly sunburnt. The argument that soreness = progress is very limited in scope and ignores other factors that contribute to the overall training effect such as recovery measures, adequate nutrition, and the previous level of exposure to particular forms of training and other physical stimuli.

Progressive overload is the most important factor in yielding long term results. Progressive overload is not always linear but is better viewed as a fluctuating cycle that has an upward trend towards increases in performance over a given time period. As long as you are focused on performance in a progressive way that does not involve overtraining or injury, you will improve – sometimes with and without soreness. 8-time Mr Olympia Lee Haney summed it up best: “Exercise to stimulate not to annihilate”. You should try to optimise nutrition, rest & recovery methods in the best way you can to mitigate DOMS but realise that you can and will experience soreness from time to time as you progress forward. This, is okay! It’s the numbers that you should be focused on. The numbers don’t lie or give you a distorted picture. Focus on performance, not pain, and you will be amazed at the changes that transpire for your fitness and body shape – with or without soreness.

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