Muscle Soreness

by | May 3, 2024 | Physical Wellness

Michelle Fleming
Blueprint Health and Fitness, Program Director
ACSM Exercise Physiologist
ACSM Exercise is Medicine
RRCA Certified Running Coach

How do I know if a workout was effective? I’m not even sore.

As an exercise physiologist, I love this question. New Blueprint Trainer Liz and I were chatting the other day about just this topic. We hear the chatter regularly about how certain workouts must have been extra effective because of how sore community members are. I usually laugh and say me too because no one wants a trainer who is always citing scientific articles when someone was just going for a laugh. Hah. I saved the discussion for our BLOG post instead! There has been extensive research about how muscle soreness is related to muscular hypertrophy and the funny thing is: they are correlated, but not equivalent. Muscle soreness is from using our muscles in new, challenging ways and from creating microtears in the muscle fibers, BUT it isn’t a transverse relationship. It is possible to have an effective workout that helps you work towards your goals without muscle soreness. It is also possible for the onset timing of soreness to be delayed (DOMS is a phenomenon for another BLOG post). 

Picture this scenario: You’ve been consistently working out 4 or 5 days a week for 3 months. You pick up the same weights for each given exercise that you’ve been picking up (ex/20lb for bicep curls, 10reps 3x). Tomorrow when you wake up you notice that you’re not sore at all, you’re slightly fatigued but that ache isn’t there. This is a sign that you are ready to progress to heavier weights. It was still a good workout though because you showed up to prioritize your health, you got your heart rate up, you challenged your muscles, and thanks to the consistency you’re stronger and fitter than you were a month ago. The best part about it is that your muscles are ready to level up in order to hit true fatigue in 30reps or less.

Another scenario in which soreness might not reflect a great, effective workout is when progression to heavier weights is slow and intentional. When taking the step towards picking up heavier weights is super gradual, we can gain muscle without a lot of muscle soreness. It is still effective because skeletal muscle percentage and resting metabolic rate have both increased, but it was done with patience while seeing a reduction in muscle soreness.

A third scenario is the opposite: just because a workout is hard doesn’t mean it is effective or helping you work towards your goals. We hear all of the time about the “hardest workout in town” (which everyone claims to have at their studio). *eyeroll* Just because it kicks your a** doesn’t mean you necessarily worked towards gaining muscle, a healthier heart, increased bone density, or decreased disease & injury risk. In this case ‘work smarter not harder’ is an appropriate mantra because you’ll be in it for the long haul. If you do the opposite, we know a great physical therapist to refer you to ;).