Does Soreness = A Good Workout?

Have you ever been so sore after a workout that you couldn’t move in the days after?

It feels good to workout hard. Exercise has been shown to have mental benefits that go far beyond the confines of the gym, which we’ve written about here. For many of us, soreness is just a small price to pay so that we can achieve results and continue making progress in the gym.

But in the case of soreness, is more always better? To make my point here, it’s best to view soreness as an acquired taste; take our affinity for spiciness for example.

How Soreness is Like Spiciness

Anyone who has eaten spicy foods knows how uncomfortable it felt to eat relatively mild peppers like jalapenos for the first time. It feels awful, but after a while we develop a craving and tolerance for the unique yet uncomfortable enhancement that spiciness imparts. Adding jalapenos to our food becomes no big deal.

Acquiring a taste for spiciness allows us to appreciate the vast and diverse amount of cuisines our world has to offer. What would Mexican food be without spiciness? Jamaican? Thai? Korean? You get the idea.

There’s something oddly satisfying about being able to tolerate spiciness. Nothing else hurts so good, right?

From time to time, we get the craving for more intensity. Habaneros, scotch bonnets, and even ghost peppers to enhance our foods and test our limits. However, there is a point on this spiciness scale at which the heat level just becomes unbearable, and has us constantly reaching for our glass of water.

This turning point in our spice tolerance varies from person to person. I think we can all agree though that at this point, the heat level begins to take away from the joy of eating our food–which defeats the purpose of enhancing our foods with spiciness in the first place.

Soreness is much the same way. Everyone seems to think that soreness is a good thing no matter what the intensity level of that soreness is. It indicates that you had a good, hard workout. Past a certain point however, that soreness just becomes too much, and it will affect everything else outside the gym.

When we workout, we are creating muscle damage and actually breaking it down. Training creates microtrauma in the muscle tissue. In response to this stimulus and stress though, the body adapts and builds muscle. Gains and progress actually occur outside the gym, which means proper recovery–sleep and nutrition–is of utmost importance.

Soreness is muscle damage. It’s what you feel when your body’s recovery mechanisms kick in.

In almost all cases, soreness is okay and should be expected in the first week of a new program. Whenever there is a new stimulus of some sort to the body, soreness will occur. As you repeat your program, the intensity of your soreness after training bouts should decrease.

However, if you’re constantly doing something new and applying a new stimulus, soreness will occur perpetually. This has become a badge of honor for some people. But when did it become fashionable to be so sore and in pain that you can barely move in the few days afterwards?

Where’s the fun in that?

We live in a culture of instant gratification, where problems and their solutions are literally just a tap away on our phones. How many of us want to get a six-pack in six days? I believe this same problem applies to soreness. It has become the de facto indicator of working out and exercising. Many people feel like if they aren’t sore, they haven’t done anything at all, which makes them push harder and harder in pursuit of that “burn.”

You don’t want to end up like this.

Sometimes too, soreness doesn’t kick in until more than a day afterwards. This is known as delayed onset muscle soreness. People can be taken aback by this. Perhaps you didn’t “feel the burn” enough during your class and you were disappointed by that, so you pushed harder. Just be aware that just because the “burn” didn’t get to you immediately, doesn’t mean that it won’t get to you later. You don’t want to end up feeling like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, do you?

The problem with soreness is not soreness itself, but what it can lead to. It indicates that your body hasn’t full recovered, and that your muscles are still damaged. Do you know what else feels like soreness? Muscle strains and tears. When it is inadequately managed, soreness can be very predictive of future injury. It’s not good to be sore all the time.

Are you chasing soreness or chasing progress?

Perhaps you’re sore, but you’re still making progress. You’re completing workouts faster, lifting heavier, and not running out of breath as fast. Many people do make progress in spite of soreness.

This is likely due to their being so de-trained and unfit to begin with, though, which makes them a total beginner by training standards. As always, beginners make the most progress in a short amount of time, mostly do to improved neuromuscular coordination.

If you do this all the time, it might be time for a change of pace.

And I would argue that these type of people are probably going to a ton of different classes on a day to day basis, which means they aren’t following a specific workout program that focuses on getting better at something over a predefined period of time. For example, they aren’t back squatting on a regular basis with the goal of getting better at it; they’re just exercising.

There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you understand that you’re just burning calories, and not actually improving your movement proficiency, your fitness level, or working on any specific goal other than burning calories.

With weight training, some people complain that they’re not breaking a sweat, especially at first, when it is of utmost  importance to work on exercise technique. I won’t allow someone to “work hard” on his deadift if he doesn’t have the movement capability to do so safely and effectively.

Beyond this though, if you’re still not breaking a sweat, I can think of two reasons why this might be the case off the top of my head: 1) you’re not working hard enough and 2) you’re not using enough weight. It’s okay to lift heavy, people.

You’re likely to get sore after weight training like this, but just because it doesn’t burn as much in the moment or because you’re not jumping around, doesn’t mean that you’re not doing anything when you’re lifting weights. And if you’re constantly feeling sore, it might be time to scale things back for a bit and deload to reload.

Deload to Reload: Making the Most out of Feeling Tired

This is why it’s generally better to put more stock in an objective indicator, like the numbers and weights you’re hitting, rather than completely subjective ones, like how sore you feel. Focus on improving these objective indicators over time, and stop using soreness as the only measure of a “good workout.”

by Jeremy Lau

Jeremy Lau

Jeremy Lau Halevy Life Staff CoachJeremy Lau is a Senior Staff Coach at Halevy Life.

Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and received his Master’s in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).

Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.

As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.