Understanding Muscle Soreness

Understanding Muscle Soreness


Not quite.

We’ve all seen or heard it before.

Probably in capital letters on some ‘fitfluencer’s’ Instagram caption.

Or worse, flashing up in big bold letters on some kind of paid advertising. Perhaps with a heavy metal soundtrack.


Because sore muscles must be a good thing, right? 

Coach Steven is here to tell you otherwise.

What causes muscle soreness?

Ah, the dreaded DOMS. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (to use its full name) can occur when you start a new exercise program, change your exercise routine, or increase the intensity or duration of your regular workout.

Let’s get technical. Mechanical stress placed on the muscle induces microscopic tears to the contractile proteins, which then causes an accumulation of intracellular fluid (inflammation) that temporarily causes pain and discomfort. This usually leads to muscle soreness for anywhere up to 24-72 hours after the workout.

(You can use that to impress your workout buddy!)

Over time, your muscles adapt in anticipation to additional stress or physical activity.

Sore muscles can also be a sign of overtraining. Training too hard and too frequently without de-loading or recovery days can be detrimental to your strength gains in the long run.

In other words - “No pain, no gain?” Bullsh!t.

There are varying degrees of muscle soreness

Different people experience different feelings (a statement that is certainly not limited to muscle soreness) - and much of this is down to genetics.

A study published by the European Journal of Physiology found individuals with certain genotypes experience greater muscle damage, and require longer recovery, following heavy exercise (Baumert, Lake, 2016).

(Something to impress your workout buddy with! Or, you know, use it as an excuse to skip a session. But please don’t do that!)

Pain thresholds are also a variable factor, which allow some people to push past discomfort to a greater extent than others.

Do I need to feel muscle soreness to know I’m making gains?

If your goal is hypertrophy (muscle building) or increasing strength and power (for athletic performance), you should be focusing on ‘progressive overload’. This principle suggests that for muscle to grow, it must work against continuous mechanical stress or muscle overload.

Are you adding more weight to the bar - while maintaining good form - as you progress through your program?

Can you squeeze out more reps with the same weight (and, you guessed it, good form) after you’ve completed your training cycle?

If the answer to either of these is yes – then you’ve made progress, whether you’re sore or not.

(And no - you shouldn’t be sore. At least, not particularly sore.)

There are many indicators to muscle growth besides muscle soreness

Muscle pain is a physiological response to exercise, but it is not an absolute indicator for muscle growth.

(We’re gonna get technical again!)

On a physiological level, it was thought that tiny muscle tears that lead to post-workout inflammation and soreness, activated gene signals that turn on protein synthesis (i.e. muscle repair).

But muscle growth and strength gains also depend on a whole load of other factors, such as the interaction between the anabolic and catabolic hormones, or the increase in neural firing rates (which is a fancy way of describing how your body communicates with itself).

In 2012, researchers at Northern Arizona University analysed two groups of individuals. One used advanced, high-intensity eccentric techniques. The other followed a standard exercise protocol.

Turns out there were no significant differences in the amount of muscle gained between the two groups (although the high-intensity group probably felt much more sore).

Have you tried high-intensity or advanced training protocols in the gym?

If you’re not getting the gains you want - try working smarter, not harder.

That is, try a new technique, rather than mindlessly lifting more.

For example, drop sets: get close to failure at a given weight, and then immediately lighten the resistance while performing more reps.

Or, increase time under tension on your eccentric contractions. During eccentric movements, the muscle lengthens as the resistance becomes greater than the force the muscle is producing. For example: lowering weights, or the downward motion of squats, push-ups or pull-ups.

Studies (Lieber & Friden, 1993) have shown that this can result in greater muscle damage (and therefore repair, and therefore growth) than contractions at a shorter muscle length.

You can even try eccentric-only training; for example, getting your workout buddy* to help you lift the bar during a bench press, so you can focus on the eccentric (lowering) part of the motion.

*Assuming you haven’t bored them to death with those technical bits we’ve covered.

We don’t recommend training to failure too often. There is a significant risk of injury - or at the very least, you’ll be seriously sore. And what good is that for the next session?

An experienced strength and conditioning coach or personal trainer will know exactly when to utilise different techniques during different stages of your workout program.

And what do you know? We’ve got plenty of the finest personal trainers in Kuala Lumpur right here on our platform.