So you’ve started a strength training program. Good on you. Your first session felt pretty manageable and you go to bed that night feeling accomplished. When you woke up the next morning, you felt like you were been hit by a bus – you’ve never been so sore in your life.
Your quads and adductors are sore, your delts and triceps are sore. Even those teeny little muscles you never knew you had, are also sore. You’re so sore that you’re limping around to do your day-to-day stuff. Still, you console yourself – soreness is a sign of progress, right?
Two days later, you brace yourself for your next training session. The first set of squats felt like crap – you could barely get to depth with the empty bar because your legs are quads and adductors are still sore. But you push on. To your relief, the soreness gradually dissipates as you warm up. But shortly after training, it comes back again. You sigh and think, “This is the price of progress. I can deal with it.”
But then over the next couple of sessions, you don’t feel sore after training. You start to wonder, “I’m not feeling sore anymore. Did I stop making progress?”
Soreness and making progress are two separate issues. Here’s why.
Muscle contractions and DOMS
What exactly is soreness, and why do you get it?
The soreness you’re feeling after training is known as “Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness”, better known as DOMS. As its name suggests, DOMS is muscle soreness that can show up a few hours after the activity, peaking around 24 to 48 hours post-training. That’s why some people feel it the next day, and some feel it the day after.
To understand the mechanism for DOMS, we need to discuss muscles and their different types of contractions:
1. Concentric contraction – this is when the muscle shortens. Imagine a bicep curl. Your biceps contracts concentrically during the phase where you lift the weight (where your elbow flexes and brings the weight closer to your shoulder).
2. Eccentric contraction – this is when the muscle lengthens (the opposite of a concentric contraction). For the same bicep curl, this is the phase where you lower the weight back to its starting position, thus lengthening the biceps.
3. Isometric contraction – this is when the muscle is contracted but maintains its length, neither shortening nor lengthening. In a bicep curl, the biceps is in isometric contraction when you curl the weight up and hold it there motionless.
While all three contractions will occur on all the basic barbell lifts, DOMS is caused by eccentric contraction. This is why you’ll feel it in some, but not all, muscles.
For example, in the squat, your back is held in rigid extension. This means that the spine erectors are isometrically contracted. Your hamstrings don’t change in length, so they too are isometrically contracted. But because your quads, adductors and glutes all undergo both concentric and eccentric contractions, that’s where you’ll generally feel DOMS.
You won’t get sore doing deadlifts or pushing the prowler, because there’s hardly any eccentric component to both activities.
Specifically, DOMS is caused by eccentric contractions that your muscles aren’t adapted to. How pronounced your DOMS will be will depend on the amount of eccentric contraction you were exposed to and your level of adaptation.
Adapting to training stress
What is adaptation?
You might have heard us talk about the Stress, Recovery, Adaptation cycle. To recap: we go through three different phases when we train. First, our workouts impose a training stress on the body – this is when the stressor temporarily reduces our performance capabilities and when DOMS may occur. Next, the body recovers from the stress applied. Finally, we adapt to that stress by increasing our baseline of performance.
Adaptation is your body’s physiological response to training. Soreness, which starts in the first phase, is basically exposure to a training stress that you’re currently unadapted to.
After repeated exposure to the same training stress, you’ll adapt to it and you stop being sore.
What does this look like in practical terms? As you carry on your novice linear progression, you gradually adapt to the training stress of squatting 3x a week and 3 sets of 5 for each session. You won’t get DOMS even though the weight on the bar is going up every session.
But if you suddenly decide to squat a set of 10 today instead of 5, guess what. You’re going to get DOMS because you’re not adapted to that increased eccentric volume.
The main determinant of soreness is the amount of eccentric volume, not the load. Doing 100 air squats will get you sore if you’re not adapted to it. Only after we consider volume, does load come into play – 100 air squats will get you sore, but 100 squats done with 60kg on your back will make your legs very, very sore indeed.
So if you feel sore, it’s not an indication of progress or getting stronger. It’s just you being exposed to eccentric contractions that you’re currently not adapted to.
Soreness is NOT the goal
Most people don’t like feeling sore – it’s uncomfortable and can get in the way of their day-to-day activities. That said, some lifters still want to believe the myth that soreness is indicative that they’re getting stronger. They’re a minority, but a stubborn one. They’re the ones who proudly equate soreness with the virtues of working hard in the gym. They’ll humble-brag about their difficult workout and how sore they feel. Hey, if that bit of self-deception helps to motivate them, who am I to judge?
If you want your training to be productive, stop exercising and start training – avoid soreness that impedes your training, i.e., due to doing random difficult, novel and “exciting” exercises, often changing them so frequently that you can’t adapt. If you’re always sore and not making progress over time, you’re not managing your training productively and it’s time to rethink your programming.
And if you have chronic soreness, pay attention. Occasional soreness is a normal part of training, but it should be temporary. Chronic soreness, however, is something you’d want to avoid because it can potentially be detrimental to your health.
Proper programming will minimise soreness
Programming is the key to reducing soreness.
If you’re just starting out (depending on how detrained you are), or starting back after a layoff (depending on how long the layoff was), limit the number of working sets.
On day 1, instead of doing 3 sets of 5 on the squat, you can start with just 1 working set. Gradually ramp up, with 2 working sets on day 2, then 3 working sets on day 3.
Note that it’s not necessary to apply this blanket reduction across all lifts. Sore pecs, delts and triceps are pretty tolerable so you can do your usual press and bench. Deadlifts don’t really make you sore and it’s for 1 set of 5 anyways, so no problem if you stick with your usual programming there. However, we definitely recommend limiting your working sets for the squat, because sore legs can be pretty uncomfortable and can cause huge inconvenience to your movements for the next couple of days.
Always err on the side of caution. Start a bit lighter and gradually ramp up. It’s much easier to ramp up if you can tolerate the training stress, as opposed to backing off if you found that you went too heavy.
If you’re already consistently training, avoid making big programming changes to gradually adapt to your new program. Suddenly going from 3 sets of 5 to 4 sets of 10 will definitely make you sore.
While some soreness is to be expected, you want to avoid any debilitating soreness that affects your day-to-day activities. Or worse, getting so sore that it affects your next training session. During my earlier days as an inexperienced coach, I had clients come in for their second session with quads still so sore that they could barely squat down. Needless to say, they couldn’t squat the prescribed weight (even though it was just slightly more than the previous session) and probably felt like crap. That sucked.
The only metric for progress is weight on the bar
If you’ve been thinking that soreness is an indication of progress, it’s time to reframe. While some soreness is par for the course, it shouldn’t be the objective.
Soreness is just a natural response to unadapted training stress. It’s just a small part of training, not something that you’re actively trying to achieve.
For strength training, the only metric that matters is the weight on the bar – if you started out squatting 60kg for your 3 sets of 5, but can now do it with 100kgs, you’ve made clear progress. Whether you’re sore or not, the numbers, much like the hips, don’t lie.