What do Sore Muscles Mean – Does soreness indicate a good workout?

“No pain, no gain.” You have probably heard that before. Is that really the case when it comes strength gains? What do sore muscles mean for muscle growth? You’re about to find out.

The pain and soreness I’m talking about here is the feeling of tender, stiff and aching muscles after exercising or training. This phenomenon is called ‘delayed onset muscle soreness’ (DOMS).

DOMS could be an indicator of how good a workout was.

But, probably not in the way you or most people think.

What is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)

Your muscles repeatedly expand and contract during exercise, your probably know this. When you work hard you create small tears in the micro-structures of your muscle tissue, the fascia around the muscle tissue and your connective tissue.

The micro-trauma to the muscles is part of the reason for decreased performance in the gym as your workout goes on.

The burning pain you sometimes feel during exercise is normally ascribed to lactic acid build up and is not the same as DOMS.

To alleviate that kind of pain, you need to stop, breathe, maybe hydrate a bit. That is not the type of pain I'm talking about here.

DOMS doesn’t set in until a while after a training session.

Lactic acid build-up is not the cause of post-workout muscle soreness.

What does DOMS feel like?

Here’s how DOMS usually hits you.

After you complete your workout, the endorphins are rushing and you feel great. You head home, make a big meal, and move on to the next thing in your day.

The next morning is usually when you get to know DOMS. In very bad cases, you feel like you can’t get out of bed. Your muscles barely respond and when they do, all you feel is pain.

sore back image for what do sore muscles mean article

You probably start regretting your last workout the same way you regret a night out at the club, the next morning.

This pain is expected and should be welcomed to a certain degree. It tells you that your muscles were worked hard or in a way they aren’t used to being worked.

Nobody ever made their gains without feeling these exact same pains.

However, it isn’t essential to be sore. In fact, soreness should decrease as you become better adapted to recovering from your workouts. Less soreness over time is a good thing.

Who Gets DOMS?

-People lifting for the first time. Muscles that aren’t used to working hard will respond strongly to the first couple days of exercise.

-Experienced athletes who increase their intensity or change their routine. This creates new levels of muscle stress and targets new muscle groups.

Delayed onset muscle soreness doesn’t necessarily occur every time you work out. Imagine you do the same fifty push ups every day for two weeks.

By the end of the first week your muscles have grown to accommodate that stress and can recover from it pretty well, you probably no longer feel sore the next day.

If you double it to 100 push ups, you probably don’t need me to tell you that the next morning might be a sore one again.

The really interesting thing is if you just slightly change the way you do a push-up, you could bring on DOMS again.

Even small changes in hand or foot position will engage different muscle groups.

You may feel it during your sets, or the difference may be so slight that 50 push ups still feels easy.

The next day, however, your muscles will probably a bit sore again, as a result of changing the way you worked them by altering your body positions.

The topic of post-exercise muscle soreness is pretty interesting and full of confusion.

In all honesty, scientists aren’t entirely clear yet on all the factors that contribute to maximised muscle growth or on what exactly causes DOMS, much of it is theoretical.

Your body is an incredibly complicated set of systems all working together.

What do sore muscles mean for your gains? - Facts about DOMS

skeletal muscle structure diagram

One theory suggests that muscle soreness is a results of micro-traumas to the muscular structure caused by training. View source.

-DOMS normally sets in between 12 and 24 hours after a workout and can last up to 72 hours! This varies widely for different people and exercises.

DOMS is normally far more intense for people who do not frequently exercise.

So, if you are getting DOMS for very long periods of time, you can probably take that as an indicator that you need to increase the training frequency of the muscle/exercise that caused the soreness.

-After a workout, your body undergoes a state of elevated protein synthesis. This is basically, the repair and rebuilding process of the muscles you just broke down.

Protein synthesis is a complicated process and is essential to creating new muscle mass. It is extremely important to building strength. I will go into it in more detail later.

-Getting adequate protein during this window of protein synthesis is essential for the repair of your muscles. The window of elevated protein synthesis is sometimes what is known as the “anabolic window”.

You may have heard that term thrown around. Often, you will hear that your window is very short so you must rush to your protein shake straight after a workout or you could miss it.

In reality, this window of muscle repair and growth can last up to 48 hours in complete novices.

What this means is that the absolute maximum amount of growth time, the “anabolic window”, for your muscles from a given workout is 48 hours.

If you’re interested in the science, here’s an in-depth review of the anabolic window.So, the fact that some people can be sore for up to a week after a given workout shows us that DOMS does not equal muscle growth. Muscle growth stops at the very most 48 hours after you train.

This brings me back to the point I made earlier:

DOMS could be an indicator of how good a workout was. But probably not in the way you or most people think.

What I actually meant was that being sore for days on end after a workout is probably an indicator that your workout really wasn’t that good.

You probably did too much overall volume (sets, reps and exercises).

-Stretching is very good for your body. It helps you warm up and helps reduce the risk of injury during exercise.

However, it has been shown to have little to no effect on DOMS. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21735398

On the other hand, massage and foam rolling is a good way to increase blood flow to the sore muscles. Increased blood flow could help with recovery​.

Some old-school Elliot Hulse, going through a bit of foam rolling for recovery.

What Do Athletes Do About Muscle Soreness?

They manage their training volume so that they are not sore for long and are ready to train again as soon as their anabolic window is “closed”.

Athletes will usually train full body workouts with just enough rest days in between to allow for protein synthesis to run its course. Also, by splitting up their overall volume for each muscle group into multiple days, soreness from workouts is much lower.

Thinking like this, suggests that full body workouts are the way to go for most people.

There’s a lot of wisdom that will point you in different directions on recovery times and workout intensity.

Each perspective usually has some pros and cons. But the bottom line is that everyone is different.

How to Manage and Get Rid of DOMS?

What is muscles soreness and how can you get rid of it? Here's the quick DOMS defeating checklist:

Muscle Soreness Cheat Sheet


The soreness you experience the day after an intense workout is called DOMS.

DOMS indicates that you have broken down your muscle and connective tissue during a workout. But does not necessarily mean your muscles are growing just because they are hurting.

The worst DOMS is usually felt by completely new gym-goers or a change in the routine of more experienced individuals.

The best way to combat DOMS is to train your entire body frequently so that you adapt to the recovery demands and get less sore.

Icing and moving the muscles that are sore can help to relieve the soreness when you do get DOMS.

DOMS is not an indicator of muscles growing or of a good workout.

The actual process of muscle repair and growth is called muscle protein synthesis. This can last for up to 48 hours after a training session.

If you are too sore to train after that period of elevated protein synthesis, then you went too hard in the gym and your recovery is hindering your potential growth.

You need to be able to train again once muscle protein synthesis returns to baseline in order to elevate it again.

It’s basically impossible to get that timing exact, but for most people, a good guide is to train the same muscle groups 36-48 hours apart.

I feel like this article is super important for your training as a whole. Not understanding the concept of DOMS and muscle recovery is the reason so many people don’t make the gains they could be making in the gym. Usually killing themselves and working much harder for fewer results.

So, do everybody you know a favour and save them by sharing this on whichever social media you like to hang out on.

No pain, no gain! Or should it be TOO much pain, much fewer gains?

Laine Norton
 

I am a strength training enthusiast that loves discovering new ways to get stronger. As a certified trainer and powerlifting competitor, I’m always looking for different training methods and advice. I hope to pass some of what I learn on to my fellow lifters.