I’m sometimes amused when one of my clients tells me what a great workout they had because they are sore, or they’re concerned because they’re not sore enough. I will then joke, “If that is your measurement of a great workout, your next session will involve standing in the corner getting beat with a baseball bat!”
In all seriousness, I sometimes also like to feel a little sore after a workout to remind me I need it. But I would not classify soreness as an indicator of an effective workout. It is unlikely that you will avoid soreness altogether when beginning a new exercise program. However, pain does not need to be present to achieve fitness gains, and pain may indicate a need to reduce or refrain from an activity.
It is important to distinguish between bad pain and good pain. The mild “burn” experienced during exercise is what we call “good pain” and is the basis of the popular phrase, “No Pain, No Gain.” This pain should be temporary and during the activity only. You should be moderately fatigued after a workout, but recover quickly. If you are continually sore or not recovering, you could be doing too much too soon. This will lead to over-training and slow your progress. Pain that occurs during exercise signals a problem with the exercise (too intense, bad form, etc.) and should be halted before muscle or joint damage occurs.
Any exercise or activity that you are unaccustomed to may lead to what is known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This type of soreness is different from the pain that develops during exercise. Delayed soreness typically begins to develop 12-24 hours after the exercise has been performed and may produce the greatest pain between 24-72 hours after the exercise. One common misconception about DOMS is that it is caused by an accumulation of lactic acid, but this is false. DOMS appears to be a side effect of the repair process that develops in response to microscopic muscle damage.
Activities that involve eccentric muscle actions are the main activities responsible for DOMS. Eccentric actions are those that cause muscles to lengthen while under force. Examples of eccentric muscle actions include the lowering phase of a bicep curl, squatting, and running down a hill. The severity of soreness depends on the types of forces placed on the muscle.
Everyone is susceptible to DOMS, even those who have been exercising for years. However, the severity of soreness normally becomes less as your body adapts to work it regularly performs. Just one bout of soreness producing exercise actually develops a partial protective effect that reduces the chance of developing soreness again from that same activity.
Other than general muscle soreness, some common symptoms of DOMS include swelling of the affected limbs, stiffness of the joint and tenderness to the touch. In rare and severe cases, muscle breakdown can be to such an extent that the kidneys are placed at risk. These are extreme cases and DOMS symptoms do not typically necessitate the need for medical intervention. If the pain level becomes debilitating, if limbs experience heavy swelling or if urine becomes dark, then medical consultation is advisable.
The best way to reduce the severity of DOMS is to progress slowly in a new program. Proper warm-up is also important in preparing the muscle for the types of forces that may cause damage, but there is little evidence that warm-up will be effective in preventing DOMS symptoms.
Stretching is sometimes done before exercise, but it is better to stretch after the body is warmed up and after exercise. Stretching has not been shown to reduce or prevent symptoms of DOMS.
Soreness should last only a few days and the involved muscles will be better prepared for future bouts of the same type of exercise. Often, symptoms diminish during activity, but they will return after recovery. If you find that your symptoms make it difficult or too painful to perform the activity, then it is advisable to refrain from the activity for a few days and return to the activity as symptoms subside. Be smart with your workouts. Sometimes it’s inevitable to experience some soreness, but it should be a tolerable “good pain.”
Perry Buchanan, owner of PT Gym, is certified as Health Fitness Specialist through the American College of Sports Medicine and has been in the fitness industry for over 30 years.