For years, the fitness industry has touted that muscle soreness was the best indicator of a successful workout. Studies are now revealing the opposite to be true. You don’t need to be unable to walk after a training session for it to be effective. In fact it can be detrimental to your progress if this is happening too often because your body struggles to adequately recover between workouts.
However, it is normal to experience something called DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness). DOMS typically happens one to two days after a training session. Feeling a little DOMS from time to time is normal if you are challenging yourself. This is part of your body becoming stronger, adapting to the stress imposed on it.
So what is soreness or DOMS affected by? There’s actually a range of things can contribute. Your soreness and its severity could be a result of:
- Genetic predisposition – Your body is designed with its own threshold before experiencing soreness. It is also unique in the rate at which its cells recover.
- Past trauma – Trauma could cause psychological impacts such as increased stress levels. Stress can increase inflammation and tense muscles.
- Social learning – Observing your peers or authority figures’ soreness-related beliefs, behaviors, and coping styles molded your own. If a peer says how “DESTROYED” they felt after a high volume deadlift session, they prime you to perceive and experience the same things.
- Habitual movement – In our habitual movement patterns, we may hold tension or use certain areas of the body more than others. These areas may be more resistant to fatigue and soreness. Sometimes soreness may come from the increased demands placed on lesser used muscles.
- Thoughts and feelings – Dwelling on the feeling, telling yourself that it’s helpless and fearing soreness prolong the effects and interfere with our daily activities.
So, is soreness bad? How can I avoid it?
Soreness is not inherently bad but too much can be a sign of under-recovery or under-use.
It’s also not entirely avoidable, and it shouldn’t be. In order to increase strength and make progress, you must overload the body so it can adapt to greater workloads. A little soreness and muscle stiffness can be a symptom of that adaptation.
If you can emphasize adaptation by training at reasonable “doses” of movement, you should get better at recovering and tolerating training. That dose is unique to everyone.
At Nexus, we focus on respecting your “internal load” (sleep, stress, nutrition, and other factors) in order to find your training dose each day instead of trying to meet the “external load” (sets and/or repetitions, duration, distance, etc.) of the session we program.
If you’re always debilitatingly sore after your workouts, consider paying attention to your “internal load”, evaluate your recovery (nutrition, sleep, etc.) and keep moving. Stopping movement or workouts entirely hasn’t shown to be as effective as continuing to move. Our bodies have a hard time adapting and growing stronger without consistent, effective stimulation.
This means a “rest day” is often the last thing you need when you’re sore. Movement, just at a lower intensity, is likely the best medicine.
The key is also to view soreness in a neutral zone, not as a good or bad thing, but as information to help you to moderate your dose and learn about yourself. Remember to reflect on what is influencing your muscle soreness; social influence, negative thoughts, habitual movement, stress, etc.
If you would like to read more into the science of muscle soreness, I’ve included some resources below:
DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness):
Lewis, P. B., Ruby, D., & Bush-Joseph, C. A. (2012). Muscle soreness and delayed-onset muscle soreness. Clinics in sports medicine, 31(2), 255–262.
Biopsychosocial Influence on DOMS:
George SZ, Dover GC, Wallace MR, et al. Biopsychosocial influence on exercise-induced delayed onset muscle soreness at the shoulder: pain catastrophizing and catechol-o-methyltransferase (COMT) diplotype predict pain ratings. Clin J Pain.
Training Loads (Internal and External) in Athletes:
Halson SL. Monitoring training load to understand fatigue in athletes. Sports Med. 2014;44 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):S139-S147. doi:10.1007/s40279-014-0253-z