Soreness is Meaningless

This is a guest post from Josh Kent. Josh is an intern from Robert Gordon University in Scotland. He is visiting us for a few months to learn more about the Starting Strength model of barbell training.

“Man, I was so sore after my workout with my new trainer/program, I could barely walk the next day. This stuff must really be working!”

It’s become quite common these days for people to view post workout soreness as some indicator of how good the workout was. A sore muscle is a well worked muscle, so I should aim to be sore a lot, right? Well, not really. In fact, as well as soreness making life more difficult, it isn’t a good indicator of exercise effectiveness whatsoever.

The eccentric portion of exercise (the lengthening of a muscle under tension), or ‘negative’ portion as some people know it, is what causes the majority of soreness. Performing deadlifts where you drop the weight quickly don’t make you very sore (since we’re almost eliminating the eccentric lowering portion), but doing Romanian deadlifts which slow down and emphasise the lowering of the bar can make you exquisitely sore, even in the absence of heavy weights.

If you want to be sore, I can make you sore. I’ll make you do 5 sets of 12 on Romanian deadlifts and your hamstrings will be screaming at you for the next two days. Progress on those 60 reps will also peter out fairly quickly due to the silly volume and lighter weights, not leaving you very strong. On the other hand, I could get you to do deadlifts for a couple heavy sets of 5 which don’t make you very sore the next day, and you’ll be able to make progress on them for quite some time. My point is that the program that made you sore wasn’t nearly as effective as the one that didn’t.

Same thing goes for conditioning. Running has an eccentric component due to the knee flexing with the quadriceps under tension to cushion the impact of the footfalls. This makes them more stressful and much more likely to interfere with your strength training. However, cycling and prowler pushing eliminate this eccentric, so you don’t wake up in the morning with a horrible ache in your legs.

But we can’t avoid eccentric work since it’s such an inherent part of useful training. Things like squats and bench presses have eccentric components which are unavoidable and actually useful due to the stretch reflex they provide, but that doesn’t mean they have to make you sore if you’re smart about programming them. Your body adapts to the stress you present it with, including eccentric stress.

If you’ve never squatted before or haven’t squatted in a while, you will likely be a bit sore the day after squatting 3x5. If you do it again two days later, you’ll notice that you’re not quite so sore this time. After a few squat workouts, you might not be sore at all the day after. Then, because life gets in the way, you have to take a break for 3 weeks. After your first day back, you will be sore again, and will continue to be sore until your body adapts once more.

So if you’re doing something only once a week or once every two weeks and are wondering why you’re so damn sore after each time you do it, it’s because you’re not doing the movement frequently enough. You are detraining slightly between each workout, essentially having to readapt every time.

So if you’re smart enough to understand that soreness is not your friend, please program your lifting intelligently and avoid high rep eccentric work. Your body will thank you for it and reward you by making getting out of the bed in the morning a much less painful affair.

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