For many active women, soreness days after a workout is a sign that you did something right. But if sitting down after leg day makes you cringe, was your workout more effective? Experts say not necessarily.
When you lift, you’re causing microscopic tears in your muscle fibers. These tears cause inflammation, and often, they also deliver the aftereffect that people love to hate: delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. With the aid of proper recovery time and nutrition, the tears are repaired, and muscles rebuild and grow.
No Pain, No Gain? No Good.
But if you don’t experience DOMS, don’t write off your sweat session as a waste of time — research has shown that post-exercise muscle soreness is generally a poor indication of workout quality. In a study from the Journal of Experimental Biology, researchers divided subjects into two groups — pre-trained and naïve — and both participated in the same eight-week high-force eccentric-cycle program (20 minutes, three times a week). The naïve group experienced signs of muscle damage absent in the pre-trained group, but both exhibited the same muscle size and strength gains.
Lead researcher Kyle Flann, Ph.D., biology faculty member at the University of Portland, says that his team was motivated to conduct this research because of the “no pain, no gain” mantra, which he calls a theory with minimal evidence. “If all you wanted to do was get sore, you could easily do some very heavy eccentric lifts and it would likely happen after just a few minutes and a few sets. Most would agree that this is not a good workout,” he explains.
While postworkout soreness can indicate that you’ve stressed your muscles effectively, it’s also reliant on other factors, including genetics.
“Some people are less sensitive to the process of inflammation caused by muscle tears than others, presumably due to genetic differences in receptor types and the ability to modulate pain at multiple levels in the nervous system,” says Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., author of Strong & Sculpted (Human Kinetics, 2016).
Interestingly, according to Schoenfeld, there is evidence that women have a reduced sensitivity to soreness because of heightened antioxidant systems. Instead of chasing severe postworkout discomfort, set goals for volume and loading. At the end of the day, there should be gain without pain.