One of the MANY workout related questions I get asked on a regular basis goes a little this…
“My muscles used to always be sore the day or two after a workout, but lately I’ve had pretty much no muscle soreness at all. Does that mean I didn’t have a good workout? Was it all a waste? If I’m not sore the day after, does that mean I didn’t increase muscle or strength?”
Other times I get a slightly different version of this same question. Something like… “Why am I only sore after some workouts and not others? Were those workouts less effective than the others?”
Whichever way it’s asked, it seems that people tend to equate muscle soreness with workout effectiveness. As in, if you feel sore, you accomplished something good. But if you don’t, you somehow failed. Well, if you happen to be someone who thinks this way, you’re about to learn why you shouldn’t.
Does Muscle Soreness Mean A Workout Was Good or Bad?
Simply put… hell no! Muscle soreness is not an indicator of a good workout. Sore muscles the day after does not mean you had an effective workout or productive workout or a results-causing workout. It doesn’t mean you’ve built muscle or increased strength or lost fat or did anything “good” in any way.
On the other hand, NOT being sore the day after also does NOT mean your workout was bad, or ineffective, or unproductive, or useless. It doesn’t mean you failed to build muscle, increase strength, lose fat or anything similar. As far as effectiveness goes, muscle soreness means nothing.
Then What Does Being Sore Mean?
So then, what’s the deal? How come you only get sore sometimes and not others? How come you used to get sore every time, but now you hardly ever do? Well, in the most basic sense, here’s what’s going on.
Muscle soreness usually occurs when you make your muscles do something that they just aren’t used to doing. You know, like when some sort of change is made. Confused? Here’s the two most common examples of what I mean…
The First Change
Remember back when you first started working out? That is almost always when everyone experienced their most intense soreness. Forget the next day… your muscles were probably sore for the entire next week! And not just a little bit, either. You were probably sore to the point where you could barely move. Remember those days? Not too fun.
But then, as your body gradually got more accustomed to what you’re doing, your body gradually experienced less and less muscle soreness over time until it reached the point where you are barely sore or even not sore at all anymore the day(s) after a workout.
Your workouts aren’t any more or less effective, your body just got a lot better at adapting to and recovering from the stress exercise is placing on it.
All Future Changes
Of course, this only explains the “why was I sore back then, but not now” question. What about the “why was I sore after this chest workout, but not my last 10 chest workouts” question?
Well, like I mentioned before, muscle soreness in the day or days following a workout is most often caused by your muscles just having to do something they aren’t used to doing. So, if your chest workout for the last 2 months has consisted of both the flat barbell bench press and incline barbell bench press, and this time you changed it to the flat dumbbell bench press and incline dumbbell flyes, there is a damn good chance you’ll be sore the next day.
Was it because this workout or these exercises were better or more effective in some way than what you were previously doing? Not at all. It was only because you changed something (in this case exercises), and in doing so you caused your body to do something it wasn’t used to doing. This is what would cause muscle soreness.
Similarly, you could have kept the exercises exactly the same, and just switched from 3 sets of 10 reps to 5 sets of 5 reps (or the other way around). You could have taken less time to rest in between sets. You could have increased the weight you’re lifting by 5-10lbs. You could have changed the order you performed the exercises in. Any change, big or small, could be enough to elicit some degree of muscle soreness.
In time, whatever you did to cause your muscles to be sore again will eventually cause less and less soreness until there’s barely any (or none at all) anymore. Is it because it stopped working or because your workout is no longer effective? Of course not… it’s just that your body has once again become more and more accustomed to the stress.
That is after all what the human body is built to do… adapt to its environment. When you change the environment (which in this case is your workout), the soreness starts again and the adaptation process starts right after.
Some Exercises Just Produce More Soreness Than Others
Now, while a change to your workout is probably the most common cause of all, another thing to keep in mind is that some people just get sore after certain workouts or certain exercises (no matter how long they’ve done them) and never get sore after others.
For example, exercises with a stretch component to them (like the dumbbell fly for the chest or Romanian deadlifts for hamstrings) tend to naturally be more likely to make you sore than other exercises for the same muscle groups. For me personally, I’ve done leg curls on and off for years and never felt any hamstring soreness. But, even light Romanian deadlifts will cause crazy muscle soreness the next day (or more).
Similarly, my chest is usually sore more often after dumbbell flyes than presses, my quads and glutes are always sore after split squats and lunges but never leg presses, and my triceps are always sore after skull crushers but never cable pushdowns.
Now, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think only those exercises were effective. But, like I explained earlier, muscle soreness is NOT at all an indicator of a good (or bad) workout. And this brings us to the most important question of all…
What Does Indicate If A Workout Was Effective?
So, if sore muscles don’t mean your workout was effective, what does? This one is easy… progress.
Are you getting stronger? Is the weight you’re lifting on each exercise gradually increasing at a realistic rate? If you’re trying to build muscle… is muscle being built? If you’re trying to lose fat… is fat being lost?
Your answers to these questions are what will let you know for sure if your workouts are actually working. Muscle soreness is just telling you that you changed something, did something your body wasn’t used to, or did an exercise that just so happens to make you more sore than others.
But in terms of effectiveness, it’s not telling you anything. Instead, use a workout log, a scale, a mirror, pictures, tape measure and common sense to judge whether or not what you’re doing is actually working. Those are the true indicators of progress.
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