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Muscle Soreness: Busting the “No Pain No Gain” Myth

Posted Nov 20 2011 11:38pm

Pretty sure this is about to be “bad sore.”

Great news: After about a year of stagnation I broke my deadlift personal record! By a lot! While this was awesome and made me strut around like Ashton Kutcher in a sorority house, two problems became immediately apparent:

1. I did a whole set at my new weight which means, as Gym Buddy Krista put it, “Clearly you haven’t been pushing yourself! If we’d known you had that in you… Never again will we let you get away with a wussy deadlift.” (Side note: for some reason the deadlift has always been one of my weaker lifts even though for most people it’s typically the strongest. I think I’m a little afraid of it because I think if my form isn’t spot-on then I’m going to throw out my back. I’ve never had a back injury and I’d like to keep it that way so seeing as I’m not a competitive weight-lifter I just figured “Why push it?” Yes I can see two immediate flaws in that logic but this is not supposed to be a post about deadlifts or my strange phobias (I’m also terrified of underwater caves.) FOCUS CHARLOTTE.)

2. I spent the whole next day trying to stretch my back in every possible way and texting the Gym Buddies “Zoooommmgoodness!! Can’t sit! Soooo sore!” (I’m convinced texting was invented just so the Gym Buddies and I can compare DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness, the technical term for the pain that sets in about 8 hours after your workout.) It’s been four days and I’m still sore.

Ignoring the fact that I’ve been a wuss for the past year, the real question is: Is this soreness a good thing or a bad thing?

In the past, the Gym Buddies and I have defined soreness as either “good”, meaning it was just enough to feel like we really worked our muscles, and “bad”, meaning that we were so sore we couldn’t function and might possibly be injured. And believe me, we’ve had plenty experience with both. In fact, we’ve been so enamored of “good sore” that we will often judge the efficacy of our workouts by our level of soreness the next day. As in, “Whooeee, that kettlebell workout was awesome – I couldn’t sit on the toilet for days and had to switch to adult diapers which are more fun than you’d think and made me sympathize just a little with that crazy astronaut lady!” Kidding. None of us have ever used adult diapers. We just fall the last six inches to the toilet seat and cry which is totally not like a toddler at all.

But a recent comment on my T-Tapp Diva Derriere (a.k.a. the butt-slapping workout) post made me re-evaluate this standard. Laurel  of Fun and Fiber wrote:

“I checked out the workout. Yes, it creates pain, but does that equal strength/toning or benefit? I have asked many people if DOMS is related to muscle gain, and from the research we have now, it does not. I’m saying this to put this workout down, I just wonder if we are pursuing the wrong things. I am doing the NROL4W, and am lifting heavier weight than I ever thought possible, yet am seldom sore the next day.”

Me being generally ignorant of the physiology behind weight training (my degree’s in computer information systems, remember?), I decided to see what the research actually says and it turns out Laurel is right. The venerable Josh Henkin sums it up thusly:

The reality is that soreness is a very poor indicator if muscle growth is occuring. If you worked at a level that demonstrates overload you will cause muscle growth. In fact, muscle soreness on a consistent basis can be a sign of doing too much work and leading you down a path of overtraining.”

Overtraining?! Aw, crap. If you’ve read this blog for more than a week then you already know I’ve overtrained in the past even to the extent of suppressing my own thyroid and getting myself sling-shotted back into eating disorder therapy for over-exercising. To this day it remains my Achilles heel. And this is the point where I confess that I’ve been getting sore a lot lately. T-Tapp not so much, but New Rules of Lifting for Women was a definite yes.

Henkin adds that “Many top athletes train without any desire to experience muscle soreness as it impedes their ability to perform.” Well that makes a lot of sense, frankly. While none of us are athletes in Henkin’s sense of the word, all of us have had the bummer experience of doing TurboKick the day after a hard weight workout. It’s like trying to roundhouse with cement shoes. And as with most occasions, cement shoes suck the fun right out.

Okay so the research is clear in that it doesn’t have to make you sore to be a good workout but does that mean all soreness is bad? Not necessarily. We’ve all heard that weight lifting works by making microtears in the muscle which are then repaired by the body and in the process made stronger than before. But soreness may have less to do with the micro-tears and more to do with the activity that brought them on : “Muscle soreness usually occurs when you make your muscles do something that they just aren’t used to doing.” Since the Gym Buddies and I start a new workout every 30 days (ish), this means our muscles experience a lot of change and so some soreness is to be expected. Plus research has shown that keeping your muscles “confused” ( thank you Tony Horton for psychoanalyzing my quads ) leads to better progress because it keeps your body from adapting and getting too efficient at that particular workout.  Also, contrary to popular belief, the research also shows that muscle soreness does not have anything to do with lactic acid build-up so while stretching afterward may help “work the lactic acid out” it still won’t prevent soreness.

To sum up:

You don’t have to be sore to gain muscle. (And also the level of soreness does not indicate the amount of muscle growth occurring.)

A workout doesn’t need to make you sore to be good.

A workout isn’t necessarily bad because it does make you sore.

Too much soreness can be counterproductive, both in regards to function and muscle growth.

Soreness should not be a goal of working out.

Ashton Kutcher should stay away from sororities.

T-Pain’s “ Best Love Song ” is good pain. And yes, I’m a little embarrassed to admit I love it.

I need to go to bed.

Do any of you judge a workout based on soreness? How often do you get sore? Anyone else weirdly afraid of a particular lift like the deadlift?

P.S. Doing a Google image search for “bad sore” is a really, really bad idea.

 

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