No Pain, No Gain?

By Matt Smith
Director, Personal Training

Muscle soreness is definitely not the best indicator of a good workout.

Whether you are a personal trainer, a fitness center employee or are just there working out all the time, I am guessing you have heard something like, “I’m not sore, so I guess I didn’t have a good workout.” I would like to clear this up so we can all get back to working out and not wondering if it is doing any good.

First of all, we need to understand what causes soreness. "DOMS" known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is the pain and stiffness felt in muscles several hours to even days after an “unaccustomed” workout or strenuous exercise. It is typically the worst 24 to 72 hours following exercise; but each individual is unique and may experience something slightly different. Notice I said unaccustomed or strenuous, that means when you start something new, change or significantly increase the intensity of an exercise or exercise program it will likely leave you with DOMS.

Second, let’s look at what makes exercise effective. For starters, it is different for everyone since we all have our own reasons for working out. Generally speaking, it is my experience that most of us fall into these typical categories related to our exercise goals: building muscle, gaining strength, increasing mobility or losing body fat. For purposes of this article we are going to focus on building muscle and gaining strength because these tend to produce the greatest stimulus for DOMS, leaving us to believe the old adage, “No pain, no gain.”

Building muscle requires hypertrophy, which is the microscopic tearing of muscle fiber. The body reacts to this by repairing the muscle and producing growth. This absolutely can take place in the absence of DOMS. Can you imagine a professional bodybuilder that had to spend their entire career with extremely sore muscles every day? Me either!

Gaining strength is actually more a function of central nervous system adaptation than absolute muscle growth. It is entirely possible to gain significant amounts of strength without ever experiencing significant muscle growth. Why, you ask? Because you are teaching the motor units to fire harder and faster to accomplish the task of moving weight, rather than focusing on the repetitions it will take to produce hypertrophy, all without DOMS.

Do not get me wrong, everyone will likely experience DOMS to different degrees and even differently throughout periods of your life. Factors include genetics, nutrition, hydration and sleep. You cannot control genetics but you can control the others. Focus on what you are doing outside of the gym as much as your workouts in the gym and you may find that you experience more gains with even less pain!

Bottom line – anything you do that gets you moving is good for you. Try not to worry about how sore you are or are not, just be consistent with your exercise and consider using a reputable personal trainer in your area to help you put together workouts that are best suited to your needs.