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Should you be sore after every workout? After all, there’s nothing more satisfying than a super sweaty workout that leaves you feeling a little sore the next day. Am I right?

It’s how you know you really worked hard.

Or is it?

When you exercise, you create microscopic damage to your muscles. In healing, your muscles become stronger.

As your body heals from this damage, your muscles might feel sore. This process is often known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).

Muscle soreness is related to muscle damage, which can promote, but is not required for, muscle growth.

In a nutshell, unless your goal is to feel sore, then you don’t need to be sore after every workout.

What is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness?

When you exercise, muscles are subject to microtraumas (tears) in response to stress. The repair of this damage leads to muscle growth.

DOMS is a byproduct of exercise-induced muscle damage. It kicks in hours after a tough workout and typically peaks within 1-3 days.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not due to a buildup of lactic acid in your muscles. It’s a result of inflammatory processses triggered by muscle repair.

Is being sore a sign of a good workout?

Maybe, but not neccesarily.

Your body may become sore if you work more intensely or change up your routine. But soreness can also just mean you were dehydrated, fueled poorly, it was hot or you were poorly recovered from your last workout. The degree to which one experiences DOMS is highly variable person-to-person, exercise-to-exercise and body part-to-body part.

You might expect to be sore at the beginning of a new cycle of workouts, but not during repeated bouts of the same exercise. Your body builds up tolerance to your routine. Your connective tissue becomes stronger, your muscle fibers become more efficient and your muscles learn to coordinate with one another to better share the load. These processes all contribute to a reduction in subsequent soreness even as you are building strength through familiar exercises.

You can build strength without the sensation of being sore. If you’re progressively building strength, you know you’re getting stronger.

If DOMS is not your barometer, how do you know if you had a good workout?

Pay attention to how you feel after you workout: Are you happy with the effort you put in? Do you feel better than before you started?

Pay attention to how you’re progressing: If you are able to lift more weight, perform more reps, improve your form, master new exercises or are otherwise reaching your goals, your workouts are effective.

DOMS is not a prerequisite for building muscle and strength and it should not be the sole criteria on which you judge your workouts.

Is it okay to be sore after every workout?

There’s nothing technically wrong with it- but a little science and a little of my own two cents.

1) There’s some evidence that chronic DOMS can actually negatively impact your strength goals in the long term. It may interfere with your recovery between workouts and make it more difficult to execute subsequent workouts well.

2) DOMS is caused by inflammation. If you’re constantly sore from your workouts, you’re in a constant state of inflammation. That’s probably not the best.

How sore is too sore?

You probably overdid it if:

  • You can’t sit on the toilet, walk up the stairs or pick up you kid.
  • You’re too sore to properly execute the exercises in your next workout.
  • You’re sore for more than 2 or 3 days.
  • How do I take care of myself if I overdid it?

    Rest, ice, good nutrition. And take a break until the soreness resolves. Your workouts won’t be effective until your muscles recover.

    Ultimately, I hope the goal of your workouts is something like building strength, stamina or feeling happier. It’s not seeking soreness. If you’re getting the results you desire, it doesn’t matter whether you’re sore or not. Conversely, you can be sore all the time and not make progress towards any of your goals.

    If you’re pregnant or postpartum, consider that your goals are to maintain strength (during pregnancy) or rehabilitate and retrain (postpartum). During either chapter, you benefit from reducing stress on your body. Exercise comes with more benefits than you can shake a stick at, but I advise working at a threshold that minimizes soreness and discomfort.

    Use exercise as a tool to support your energy and readiness, not detract from it.⁠⁠

    References:

    Flann, Kyle L., et al. “Muscle Damage and Muscle Remodeling: No Pain, No Gain?” Journal of Experimental Biology, vol. 214, no. 4, Feb. 2011, pp. 674–79. https://doi.org/10.1242/jeb.050112.

    Schoenfeld, Brad J., and Bret Contreras. “Is Postexercise Muscle Soreness a Valid Indicator of Muscular Adaptations?” Strength & Conditioning Journal, vol. 35, no. 5, Oct. 2013, pp. 16–21.

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    My mission is to make sure that having a baby is not a reason why you can’t do all the things.

    Contact me if you have questions about exercise or pelvic health pertaining to pregnancy or postpartum. I also offer personal training services and consultations to folks locally (Seattle, Bellevue, Redmond, Kirkland) and online.

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