Have you ever finished your workout, assuming/expecting/dreading that in the coming hours or days you’ll experience some of that infamous soreness we hear so much about? Only to never end up sore, and eventually wonder if you wasted your workout, or ‘did it wrong’? “Should I be sore after my workout?” is a question I’ve been asked many times, so in the following paragraphs I will shed a little light on why we end up sore, and when we actually want to end up sore.
While some will say your workout wasn’t good enough if you’re not sore the next day, others will say the opposite; I say, it depends. It depends on (and this goes for just about anything fitness related) what your goals are. Different goals should create different responses from your body, one of which is the common muscle soreness called DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness), but before going into whether or not you should be experiencing DOMS on the reg, it’s important to understand what causes the soreness in the first place.
What Causes Sore Muscles?
That sore feeling we’re all so familiar with is caused by small tears in the muscle tissue believe it or not. Muscles are made up of tiny compartments (called sarcomeres) that are connected on each end to another sarcomere, which are connected to more sarcomeres ultimately forming a long chain. The sarcomere is the contractile unit of a muscle and ultimately what is responsible for movement! Having said that, you can now understand that it’s damage to the sarcomere that results in soreness after exercise. Now that you know the cause of soreness, let’s dive into whether or not you should be sore.
When Should I be Sore?
Muscle soreness is a fundamental part of most exercise, especially for those who haven't spent much time being active in the past several months. With that said, if you’re just starting out in the gym, or just getting back on track after a long layoff, you’re likely to experience more soreness initially, compared to what you’ll feel after a month or so of consistent training -regardless of your goals. This is due, in large part, to the lack of strength and coordination in your muscles.
After Changes in Routine:
To get the most out of your workouts (more on that HERE), it’s important to routinely change things up. The reason for this is simple: As you workout, your body is learning how to handle the demands of that workout, becoming stronger and ultimately making the work less taxing (and less taxing = fewer results). This is why a 10-pound dumbbell might be hard to lift at first, but noticeably easier after a few weeks. Keep your body working!
The level and frequency of muscle soreness is strongly related to your health and fitness goals:
Goal A: Bigger Muscles (Most Soreness!)
If your goal is to have bigger, more defined muscles then soreness is something you will definitely want to feel after most of your workouts. By structuring your workout in a way that breaks the tissue down (also known as ‘hypertrophy training’) a response is triggered from your body that ultimately causes the muscle to rebuild, but bigger than it was before.
Goal B: Increased Strength (Some Soreness...)
If your goal is to get stronger, your workout should consist of lifting heavy weight at a fairly quick tempo. By doing so, you improve the coordination of muscular contraction which results in more strength. Even though the majority of strength gains come from this improved muscle coordination, the nature of lifting heavy weight is going to break the muscle tissue down, albeit less than hypertrophy training will, resulting in some soreness.
Goal C: Lose weight/Burn fat (Minimal Soreness..)
For those of you who want to burn fat and ultimately lose a few pounds, you should experience some soreness after you incorporate changes into your resistance training routine, as I mentioned earlier. However, for the most part you should be focused on long-duration aerobic types of exercise (cardio), since it is one of the best ways to burn fat.
So What’s Happening if I’m not Sore?
Just because you’re not sore the day or two following your workout doesn’t mean that the workout was pointless, or a waste. Will your muscles get bigger - not necessarily, but that doesn’t mean other important things aren’t happening. Some of these other results of exercise are listed below:
- Stress Relief – A well-known benefit to exercise is its ability to relieve tension and reduce overall stress.
- Stronger Heart – Exercise, as we all know gets the heart rate going, and the result of the increased heart rate is a stronger ticker.
- Improved Circulation – As a result of a strengthened heart (which pumps blood throughout the body), circulation is improved resulting in healthier tissues and organs.
- Improved Coordination – During certain exercises, particular muscles are targeted but other muscles are still working to keep things in order. The body’s ability to control the ‘other’ muscles is continuously improving with each round of exercise.
- Energy Pathway Efficiency – Different tasks place different demands on the body, (which is why cardio is better exercise for burning fat) requiring energy either more or less immediately. Exercise introduces demands that require both immediate and slower forms of energy, which causes the body to use its different energy pathways ultimately making them work more smoothly.
So there you have it – There are plenty of positive things happening in your body as a result of exercise, but if your goal is to have bigger, more defined muscles then soreness is something you want and need to experience after your workouts. That’s not to say if your goals are just to stay healthy and not to have bigger muscles that you’ll avoid being sore altogether - any quality training program should routinely present challenges that the body isn’t used to which will, more often than not, result in at least minimal soreness. Embrace it!