December 9, 2013
There is a common misconception that muscle soreness through exercise is inevitable and necessary to see results. For many, soreness acts as an indicator of a great workout. But this is a shortsighted view of exercise benefits and can have detrimental effects in the long run.
To clarify, this is not about the minor muscle stiffness that can be felt the day after a workout. This is about excessive soreness—the kind of soreness that lasts for a few days, has you avoiding stairs and dreading everyday activities such as putting on pants, getting in and out of a car, and even sneezing. Some people actually strive to experience this. And while a little soreness is safe and may motivate even the most sensitive among us, when it crosses the line toward debilitating movement, your body is telling you that you went too far.
In short, all muscle soreness is a result of microscopic tears that take place through workouts, followed by swelling as part of the repair and rebuilding process. This may sound like a violent way to treat your body, but it is a necessary process to stimulate changes that improve strength and fitness. But how much is enough? To answer this accurately, lets look at the available research and remove any anecdotal biases from the equation.
Cause and Effect
Many people argue in favor of soreness because they have experienced positive results and associate soreness with the results. But soreness does not necessarily equate with a cause and effect for the improvements. In fact, there is no scientific evidence that proves soreness gets better results. While there is a lack of research in this specific area, there is no shortage of research indicating that progressive challenges are responsible for improving fitness. The question then becomes, can we progress effectively without soreness? And the answer is a resounding YES.
Consider world-class athletes. No athlete, after falling short in competition, has ever said, "I should have trained to be more sore." Yes, athletes do sometimes experience sore muscles from training. But it is neither the purpose nor the target of their training. In fact, workouts are often modified for athletes if they are experiencing excessive soreness. The measuring stick used to track success for an athlete has nothing to do with the level of soreness derived from day-to-day training and everything to do with the longer-term outcome of their training program and competition goals. In fact, too much soreness will negatively impact training and competition.
To improve fitness, it is true that an “overload” is required. This means you need to apply a challenge that is greater than what your body is accustomed to. However, this “overload” can be applied aggressively or it can be applied gradually. Many assume the more aggressively you overload, the faster you will see results. But the body is more complex than that and pain is its way of telling us to slow down with the overload.
Law of Diminishing Returns
Most improvements follow a basic premise of “the more you put in, the more you’ll get out.” However, there is a tipping point that suggests a certain level of extra work does not yield any additional benefits. In short, it means you are working overtime and not getting paid for it. This can be illustrated through the concept of exercise dosage. Much like medical prescriptions, too high of a dose does not provide additional benefits nor increase the speed of benefits. Additionally, repeated “overdosing” can invite negative consequences. Extreme soreness is often just that—an “overdose” to the body.
Why it is Important to Avoid Muscle Soreness?
The Hot Iron syndrome…
Most kids only need to touch a hot iron once. If you simply don’t like to feel pain, soreness is more likely to be a deterrent to exercise, not a motivator. In fact, it may be a subconscious reason it is so difficult to start up or get back to that first workout after a layoff.
Fitness should make everyday life easier, not harder…
Extreme soreness naturally alters choices for activity outside of workouts. If your weekly leg workout leaves you feeling sore for three days, and you choose escalators over stairs, it defeats the functional purpose of being more fit.
Tighten up those muscles…
This phrase, which is often used to describe a positive outcome, may literally mean “tighten” in this case. Consistent states of soreness can easily reduce range of motion and lead to permanent changes to your movement patterns.
Overtraining and overuse injuries…
Overtraining and overuse injuries take time to develop. Unfortunately, by the time they are noticed, you are too deep to reverse the process quickly. Aiming for and achieving soreness week in and week out is inviting either or both.
Distraction from more important goals of exercise…
Exercise and fitness success needs to have a far more sophisticated evaluation tool than the level of soreness. By aiming for soreness in the short term, we may be ignoring the true measurements of success for exercise, such as fitness, strength, functionality and longevity, among others.
How to Avoid Muscle Soreness and Still Achieve Great Results
Avoiding soreness is not the same as avoiding high intensities. High intensities and maximum effort can be reached through sensible and progressive overloading strategies. You just don’t want to start there. Gradual progressions are very effective and are a far more reasonable and comfortable way to improve fitness and reduce short- and long-term risks. This can be accomplished by understanding your current levels of fitness and strength, and applying small and frequent increases in intensities and volume according to where you are now—not the level you someday hope to reach.
Remember, fitness is built. It is not injected. Build it wisely…
Chris McGrath, M.S., is the founder of Movement First, a New York City-based, health and fitness education, consulting and training organization. With more than 20 years of fitness and coaching experience, McGrath specializes in a variety of training modalities including sports performance, injury prevention, post-rehabilitation and lifestyle/wellness coaching. McGrath is a Senior Fitness Consultant to the American Council on Exercise and has established himself as an international fitness expert.