“I’m sore, so I must have had a good workout, right?”

We all know that individual who works out just to get sore. They love it and it’s a major reason they keep working out. How sore they are from the day before is the first (and sometimes only) thing they’ll talk about.

“Dude, my glutes are so sore from yesterday from those squats! I couldn’t sit down all day!”

Wait. What?

Maybe you’re guilty of it too. I know I have been. We chase soreness as an indicator of progress, like the previous day’s workout was a good one. But is that true? Is soreness really good for short-term feedback to let us know if we had a good workout the days before?

Actually, not quite.

The official terminology here is Post Exercise Muscle Soreness (PEMS), which when prolonged evolves into Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). It is the effect of inflammation in the muscle cells caused by microscopic tears in connective tissue, the release of pain-stimulating chemicals and reactive oxygen species within the muscle cells, biochemical changes outside of the cells, and pressure upon the muscle fibers from edema (fluid buildup under the skin). Basically, PEMS is caused by a cascade of damage inside and outside the muscle.

Now, this may sound horrible, but before you reconsider working out today, consider this: the body only adapts when there is sufficient stimulus to induce growth or adaptation. In this case, optimal damage to the muscle will cause the muscle to adapt by rebuilding, through gene expression, and adding more support. This could mean bigger muscle fibers (hypertrophy), stronger connective tissue, and fortified contractile and supportive properties of the muscles.

But, if we’re just talking about getting that hyperTROPHY here then we’re missing some significant elements to the process of developing well-rounded fitness.

Soreness is for the nOObs…

Soreness usually occurs the first few weeks for someone who has been sedentary. It should then subside and be limited to when they engage in a novel activity or a workout with lots of volume. Again, this is the body going through the adaptation process. However, fitness adaptations will often occur in the absence of significant soreness. In fact, the optimal stimulus for making progress in performance is the compilation of stimuli from multiple workouts of slight progression, or Progressive Overload, and is often undetectable by our conventional senses. Everyone knows that after doing their first intense workout, the newbie will be sore tomorrow, but as they continue to train, soreness subsides and progress ensues. Muscle and connective tissue get rebuilt and reinforced until they can sustain the volume of the workout without getting extremely sore. That’s when performance becomes a more important pursuit in becoming fit.

“If I shouldn’t be chasing the soreness, what should I try to do?”

While muscle does get rebuilt and reinforced after a workout, the biochemical and neurological properties of the body are much more active in the undetected background changing in favor of increasing proficiency of the components of fitness. Thus, chasing soreness as the major sign of a good workout is a hit-or-miss method. The only way to really know if progress from your training is actually being made is to record and regularly assess your fitness through quantifiable metrics such as your time, load, and repetition Personal Records (PRs).

There is an infinite amount of strategies to train towards progress in your fitness and thereby increase your PRs. While some are very complicated and geared towards elite athletes, others are as simple as sticking to the programming your coach or trainer prescribes for each day’s workout. Remember that if you want to know how to increase a certain aspect of your fitness, just ask them!

So don’t be that guy or girl who keeps ranting about their soreness. Remember that progress happens outside of the gym, when you’re recovering. Don’t chase the PEMS; chase your last PR!