Muscle soreness often occurs after very intensive workouts or unknown movements. It is therefore often seen as an indication of an effective workout and by some even as necessary for adaptations in muscle tissue. For this reason many fitness enthusiasts strive to achieve muscle soreness after their workouts, despite the discomforts this will give in daily life. But can muscle soreness be used as an indication for an effective workout and is it necessary to keep getting results or is it a sign of overload.?
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)
DOMS occurs when muscle tissue gets damaged as a result of unfamiliar exercises or very intensive training. Minuscule tears in muscle tissue cause inflammation (see figure below). This inflammation process causes increased production of several substances that stimulate nerve endings causing them to sooner send pain signals to the brain. Blood vessels are widened as well to supply the muscle with extra blood and nutrients.
Muscle soreness occurs both after concentric and eccentric muscle contractions, but is more pronounced after the latter. Muscle soreness can start as soon as 6-8 hours after finishing a workout and often peaks around 48 hours. However, this pattern varies strongly from person to person and it can occur sooner or later and take more or less time depending on the training, rest, nutrition and genetics.
Muscle sorenes and muscle growth
Muscle tissue is very active tissue and will adapt to regular training. When a muscle is regularly loaded with large resistances or heavy weights, the muscle will grow larger and stronger as an adaptation. Heavy loads cause the miscroscopic tears in muscle tissue which are an important factor when muscles have to grow.
This muscle damage can cause muscle soreness as well. However the relationship between the intensity of muscle soreness and the amount of damage is not very clear. Or in other words, much muscle soreness does not necessarily mean much muscle damage and is therefore not a good indication of a growing or adapting muscle. Research has shown that muscle growth occurs independantly of whether a muscle has had regular muscle soreness after a workout or not.
Muscle soreness regularly occurs after activities that hardly have any effect on muscle growth at all as well, such as running downhill or longer endurance training such as running or cycling. Muscle soreness therefore is not a very good indication of an effective workout for muscle growth.
Disadvantages of muscle soreness
The occurence of muscle soreness has several important disadvantages. Firstly, it can hinder people in performing everyday tasks. Muscle soreness decreases muscle strength as well and causes a reduction in joint stability and therefore less efficient movements. This increases risk of injury when training hard while still suffering from muscle soreness, but can also cause the next training to be less effective because the muscles can not deliver as much force as in the previous workout and training technique suffers. Although the effectiveness of training with muscle soreness is still cause for much debate.
Although muscle soreness can sometimes be an indication of an effective muscle building workout, it definately is not a requirement to make progress. Muscles grow to the same extent with or without regular muscle soreness. Aside from that muscle soreness can also occur after activities that cause little to no muscle growth. Training to generate muscle soreness to make sure you’ve had an effective workout is therefore not recommended. Proper training technique, high resistance or weight and making sure the muscle reaches failure are far more important factors, both for muscle growth and other training goals..