You’ve been working out for a while, and you’re feeling pretty strong, so when your friend asks you to join them for Crossfit you’re all game. But the next day you can barely walk. You’ve been working out consistently, you feel strong, and while the workout definitely kicked your butt, it wasn’t anything you couldn’t handle. Yet you’ve been hit hard with post-wokout soreness. So what gives?
Preparing your body for battle
When you exercise a muscle that you haven’t worked in a while your body makes adaptations to better prepare your muscles to do that activity again. This is often accompanied by DOMS or delayed onset muscle soreness which is just a fancy term for post-workout soreness. DOMS occurs 6-8 hours post-workout, peaking around 24-48 hours and typically subsiding within 72 hours.
After your workout increased muscle proteins are released into the bloodstream to signal muscle damage. There is usually a decrease in force production in the muscle that was trained. Swelling and increased stiffness are also common.
Lactic acid: friend or foe?
When you exercise, your body needs energy to fuel your workout. It does this by breaking down molecules which cause the cells to become more acidic giving muscles that burning feeling. While this feeling has often been attributed to lactic acid, lactate has actually been unfairly demonized. Lactate clears the system fairly quickly after a workout, typically within an hour, long before DOMS sets in. Lactate is a byproduct of the metabolic process and serves as a buffer to slow down how quickly your cells become acidic. So while lactic acid has been the fall guy for years, the truth is that it helps minimize post-workout soreness.
What causes DOMS?
While DOMS is not fully understood it is believed to be a result of microtrauma to the muscle and surrounding connective tissues, causing inflammation, leading to post-workout soreness.
It is typically the result of training a muscle that you haven’t trained frequently or a significantly higher training volume/intensity than you are accustomed to.
Eccentric training, such as the lowering phase of a bicep curl, seems to cause DOMS more than concentric or isometric due to the increased load on the muscles.
The Repeated Bout Effect
When you perform an exercise you’re unaccustomed to or exercise a muscle that you haven’t trained in awhile you’re more likely to experience pain than when you perform an exercise you’ve been doing for a while. That’s a result of the repeated bout effect. It’s a protective effect designed to better prepare the body for the next time you do that activity. This protective effect can last for several weeks and may be related to the amount of injury incurred during the initial training. However, this effect is reduced over time which is why you may have been able to squat 400lbs. in high school but last week’s leg day left you barely able to walk up the stairs.
So the big question, do you need to feel sore to have an effective workout?
The simple answer is no. Because your body adapts to training if you repeatedly train the same muscles in the same manner, you won’t necessarily feel sore even with an increase in volume. Thus post-workout soreness is not necessary for a workout to have been effective.
But don’t I need to confuse my muscles to keep seeing results?
Despite what you’ve heard about muscle confusion and needing to constantly change up your workouts to avoid plateaus, the truth is that your muscles do not need to be confused. The reason a lot of people think that muscle confusion is so effective is that they’re consistently sore after their workouts. But soreness isn’t a useful measure of whether or not your workout was effective. That’s not saying that muscle confusion doesn’t work for fat loss or hypertrophy because it certainly can, just about any modality works in some form, it’s simply not the most effective.
When you train the same movements/movement patterns repeatedly the central nervous system (CNS) adapts to those movements. These adaptations allow you to lift more in subsequent training bouts. The other issue with post-workout soreness after every workout is that it can affect the intensity of your next workout. If you’re struggling to walk up the stairs or sit on the toilet, you’re either going to have to take a few days off from training legs or your next workout is going to take a hit.
But won’t I plateau?
Doing the same workout or the same exercises repeatedly will not cause you to plateau if you are increasing the volume (weight x total reps) each week. If you continuously do 3 sets of 10 squats at 150lbs. your progress will stall, your body has nothing to adapt to. But the notion that your muscles need to be confused or that they simply stop responding to a stimulus because the movement is the same is simply not true.
Powerlifters are the perfect example. They train the same three movements: squat, bench press, deadlift on a weekly basis. Their muscles still continue to grow and adapt despite training the same movements. Yesterday, I performed all three lifts, I also did them on Tuesday, and I’ll do them again tomorrow, as I do every week. Am I sore? Not really. My quads are a little tight, and my back feels a bit stiff but definitely nothing that would hinder my next workout. And yet I continue to get stronger, and my muscles are more defined. That’s because every week I do just a little bit more than I did the week before. No muscle confusion required.
Not one size fits all
Granted everyone is different, and some people are more likely to experience soreness than others. Just because you didn’t get sore doesn’t mean you didn’t get a good workout. If you follow the same program for a year and increase the weight by 2.5% each week will you be stronger at the end of the year? Heck yeah you will. Ultimately the best workout is the one that you can do consistently. So if you get really, really bored doing the same thing over and over and your goal isn’t sport-specific then changing up your workouts is fine if it will keep you consistent. Just know that soreness doesn’t determine the effectiveness of your workout.
So what do you do to minimize post-workout soreness?
Preparation is key. It’s important to make sure you’re properly warmed up before beginning your workout. See here for more info on the importance of movement prep.
One study found that people who foam rolled for twenty minutes post-workout experienced significantly less soreness than those who did not.
What do you do if you’re already sore?
The good news is there are some treatments that have been found to speed up recovery, warm water immersion, gentle massage, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as ibuprofen may help alleviate the pain. Ice baths or cryotherapy has not been found effective and may actually delay recovery.