Do Workouts Need to Make You Sore to Work?

06/03/2015 09:41 am ET | Updated Jun 03, 2016

Love it or loathe it, muscle soreness after a workout make us feel like we accomplished something "good." Even though the old adage, "no pain, no gain" is about as legit today as using leeches to detoxify blood, many of us still can't help but feel that a few days of après workout soreness is a testament to how good the sesh was.

First, let's get our terminology clear. The soreness I'm referring to is known as "delayed onset muscle soreness" or DOMS. It's that slightly uncomfortable feeling to downright insufferable stiffness you may experience for a few days (or more) after workout. This is not the same as the burning sensation you feel in your muscles when you're pushing hard and eventually causes you to back off. The true cause of this burn is being hotly debated. For years, the common theory said it was from "lactic acid" build up in the muscle but it turns out that lactic acid actually buffers the burn, not causes it. If your trainer still is saying the burn is from lactic acid, suggest that they read up on the latest research. If however they say the soreness after the workout (DOMS) is due to lactic acid, well, that's an old myth and is completely false. Interestingly, however, you can experience a lot of muscle burn while working out and still not have DOMS afterwards.

So how necessary is muscle soreness for seeing results? It's actually not. DOMS is caused by microscopic tears that damage the muscle. While this can "enhance" muscle growth according to Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., assistant professor in exercise science at Lehman College in New York, it's not a true indicator of an effective workout.


This means that it's possible to have a great workout that actually builds muscle without leaving you stiff and sore afterwards. Coming down with a case of DOMS usually means you've done a workout that's new or more intense than what you've been doing (more reps and sets, more weight, more speed, etc). But as with any training, your body will adapt to the new stimulus and the soreness you felt the first time will lessen considerably in subsequent workouts. This is called the "repeat bout effect." If you're somewhat of a sadist and hell bent on feeling sore for a few days, doing exercises with a substantial amount of eccentric contractions will give you the fix you're looking for. Eccentric exercises such as running down hill, the downward phase of a squat or dead lift under load or, slowly lowering the weight during a biceps curl, happen to cause more muscle damage than concentric or isometric contractions.

If you've heard that muscle needs to be damaged in order to repair itself and grow back stronger or bigger, that's another fallacy. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology tested two groups of exercisers. One group was subjected to an exercise program that caused an initial bout of muscle damage while the other group was allowed to ramp up gradually so they would avoid muscle damage. At the end of the trial, both groups had almost identical gains in size and strength.

Schoenfeld says although DOMS is often experienced thanks to muscle damage, it's not always so. People respond to muscle damage differently. Some may experience noticeable soreness after a particular workout while others may not. "What we can conclude here," he says, "is that soreness might be a sign that you've provided a novel stimulus that can help to increase growth-related processes," but it's definitely not a necessity. By the way, "too much soreness," he warns, "can have a negative impact on growth."

What's the takeaway here? The important thing to remember is there's no actual link between muscle soreness, muscle growth and muscle damage. In other words, muscle soreness doesn't mean you stimulated the muscles enough to make them grow and not being sore doesn't mean your muscles aren't growing.

So how can you be sure your getting a good workout if building muscle strength is your goal? Here are some tips:

1. Turn up the volume. Do multiple sets of exercises several times a week.

2. Hit all your muscle fibers types by lifting light, moderate and heavy weights.

3. Make sure you're challenging yourself (the last few reps should be really tough).

4. Do a variety of exercises for each muscle group.

5. Give yourself some recovery time. If you're pushing hard to build your muscles, give them some down time to rejuvenate by going easy for a week here and there. Just like you need a vacation after working your butt off at your job, so do your muscles.

I'd like to hear from you. Do you like feeling sore after a workout or not? If you do, why do you like it?