Updated: May 11, 2020
Let me ask you a question about your workouts. Do you feel like you need to be totally exhausted, depleted, having left it all on the floor in order to feel like your workout counted? Do you chase the sweat, the soreness, the pump or the burn? While it's totally OK to enjoy those feelings - many of us do, it’s equally as important to not get caught up in them or attach them to what defines a good workout. Working up a sweat feels good, and a bit of soreness the day after a workout can feel like a pleasant reminder that you prioritized some physical movement the day before - they both give us a little emotional confidence boost, no doubt. But neither sweat nor soreness necessarily equate to a great workout, read on to find out why.
Here’s the deal with soreness. Challenging your muscles in any significant way, perhaps in the gym but even doing something as mundane as yardwork, creates microscopic tears in your muscle fibers, which in turn creates inflammation and - you guessed it - soreness. This soreness is referred to as DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) and is most often felt after having performed an activity or exercise that we haven’t done in a while, or after an exercise that stretched us at long lengths (like straight leg deadlifts). So, while you might feel sore after a really great workout, you also might not - and it most certainly doesn’t mean that you didn’t push yourself hard enough. Many of us feel sore at the beginning of our fitness journey mainly because we are doing things that our bodies are unaccustomed to. That soreness might also return anytime you switch things up in your routine: loading your weight in a different way, performing an exercise at a different angle, adding more or less elevation to an exercise, etc.
Not only does DOMS not necessarily reflect a killer workout, but it also isn’t required for muscle growth either. Muscle damage, those tiny tears we talked about, is one contributing factor that stimulates muscle growth but there are two other factors that are much, much more important: mechanical tension and metabolic stress - terms that we’ll dive deeper into in another article. Feeling great the day after a workout doesn’t mean you didn’t hammer your muscles hard enough, in fact it could mean you’re getting stronger, and isn’t that the overall goal anyway? Plus, feeling excessively sore can actually hinder results, especially if coupled with under recovery.
Instead of chasing soreness, take a look at the stats of your workout. Are you getting stronger? Are you able to do more reps at the same weight - without any soreness at all? Are you seeing changes that you want to see in the mirror or in your progress pictures? Those are all much better indicators that not only have you been performing effective workouts, but that you are making progress, arguably the most important piece of the puzzle. It's OK to enjoy a bit of sweat or post-workout soreness, but make sure to keep things in perspective.