Does Muscle Soreness Actually Mean More Muscle Growth?
You might believe "No Pain. No Gain" is the mantra of muscle growth. And muscle soreness is a badge of honour you seek with every workout.
Consequently, you're a pain-hungry animal, hellbent on torture and a sadistic search for daily debilitation.
But the research indicates soreness might not even be necessary for muscle growth.
In this article, you'll discover everything you need to know about muscle soreness and whether or not it serves as a valid marker of progress. If you want to find out more about how to take your training and physique to the next-level, read on.
And if you'd prefer to listen to the audio version of this article, click the play button below.
Muscle Soreness And Muscle Growth. Is There A Connection?
Do you NEED to induce muscle soreness in order to get the most out of your training?
You might think the answer is YES.
After all, train with the effort and vigour of a sedated Sloth and the chances of you building muscle are slim. However, push things too far and muscle soreness might be impact your gains.
In essence, you need to be the Goldilocks of the gym. Not too little training stimulus and too much, but just the right amount.
To understand muscle soreness in more detail, you first need to understand the 3 main processes of building muscle. These are:
- Progressive Overload. Increasing the amount of mechanical tension placed on your muscle, ie more reps, sets, weight, better form, or a mixture of all four.
- Metabolic Stress. Typically, high rep work that pushes your muscles to their limit of fatigue.
- Muscle Damage. The damage caused to the muscle fibres themselves during the process of resistance training.
In relation to muscle damage, the hypothesis is that it is essential for muscle growth. And muscle soreness is a good indicator of muscle damage. Therefore, Soreness = Damage = Growth. But is this theory true?
Does the research confirm the "No Pain. No Gain" mantra of yesteryear, or does it need to be buried with the rest of bro-science for all eternity?
Here's a hint. Muscle soreness is actually a poor indicator muscle growth. As a result, it's arguably not the thing you should be focusing on. In fact, muscle soreness may not even be muscle soreness at all, but highly related to connective tissue damage.
What Does The Science Say About Muscle Soreness?
Research into muscle soreness may not provide all the answers. But it gives a good indication of the involvement of soreness in the muscle building process.
Firstly, muscle soreness is NOT essential for building muscle. In fact, you can make gains in muscle strength and size, without experiencing much muscle soreness at all, as this 2011 study concluded.
And even if you do believe to muscle damage is critical to hypertrophy, soreness appears to be a poor indicator of growth. For instance, as you train more frequently, your resistance to muscle soreness increases. This is as a result of something called the 'repeated bout effect'.
So, in theory, the more you train, the less likely you are to experience muscle soreness. And constantly striving for exercise-induced pain, may lead to consistent disappointment.
But why do some people experience more muscle soreness than others?
Why Muscle Soreness Affects Some More Than Others
Muscle soreness affects some more than others. For example, your training partner might feel sore after every workout, whereas you never experience any.
But why is that? And more importantly, should you even care?
Imagine, for a second, a guy or girl in the squat rack, poised and ready to set a new PB. Psyching themselves up with primal grunts and chest-thumping hyperbole. Then, to your surprise, they perform 10 quarter reps, barely using their leg muscles in the process.
What are the chances of this person experiencing muscle soreness tomorrow? Answer... Zero!
You see, a greater range of motion is likely to induce more muscle soreness than poorly executed partial reps. Training a muscle in the fully lengthened position and accentuating a slow tempo and eccentric, is likely to cause more muscle damage and subsequent soreness.
Taking this one step further, you could theorise that exercise selection is another factor. For example, a poorly designed training programme that fails to create a full-range-challenge, could be a reason for differing degrees of post-workout soreness.
Nutrition And Genetics
Your training programme is one thing, but nutrition and genetics also play a role.
Response to a training stimulus is very individual. And there's no universal truth applicable to everyone. In reality, some people get sore and others don't. It's that simple.
For example, research indicates a clear difference in muscle soreness between genders, brought about through hormonal differences, particularly around the menstrual cycle. Meaning women may experience more prolonged muscle soreness during their monthly cycles.
Your levels of soreness may also be indicative of your nutrition, sleep, and other lifestyle factors. So make sure these factors are optimised and not influencing your judgement of progress.
If Not Muscle Soreness, Then What?
How do you judge the effectiveness of a workout if muscle soreness is a poor indicator?
The answer to this is simple.
If nutrition, recovery, and form are standardised, then progressive overload and visible changes in your physique become the BEST markers of progress. Simply put, if you're making progress, regardless of soreness, you're making progress.
If you're not making progress, then you need to assess why.
Start with the fundamentals of nutrition, sleep, form, and exercise selection. Once those elements are in the right place, if you're never sore, maybe it's time to increase training volume. Conversely, if you're always sore, maybe it's time to back off.
Again, you're looking to be the Goldilocks of the gains. Slap-bang in the middle-ground!
The Bottom Line On Muscle Soreness And Muscle Growth
Muscle soreness is not a badge of honour you should actively seek with every workout. In truth, it's a poor indicator of progress. And your constant pursuit of it may negatively impact growth. Instead, look to more reliable measures of progress over the long-term.
The phrase, "No pain. No Gain" has been ingrained in the "bro-code" for decades. But that doesn't mean you need to mindlessly prescribe to it.
Measuring the effectiveness of your workouts by degrees of soreness is neither accurate nor rational. Being unable to go to the toilet without the aid of a carer should not be the benchmark for your next leg workout.
Progressive overload and visible changes in your body can be directly correlated with progress. Whether you experience muscle soreness or not may largely depend on recovery, sleep, nutrition, exercise selection, range of motion, tempo, form, gender, and genetics.
So stop being a pain-hungry sadist and focus on true markers of muscle growth.
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