Is Soreness an Indicator of a Good Workout? Let's Find Out!


Over the course of my athletic life, I've often heard fellow athletes complain about how nasty their workout was the other day- “I literally cannot move, I am so sore!”  they would yell proudly. For a while now, especially since being confined to at-home workouts with limited equipment, I have found it increasingly more difficult to make myself feel sore. I started to get down on myself, thinking that I am not pushing myself hard enough, or that my exercises have become too easy for me and I have no way of increasing their difficulty. After a couple of days of moping, I began to wonder- Is soreness an indicator of a solid workout? If this is true, then half of the workouts of my life have been mediocre!”  So I went on a little journey of research and discovery, and now I am bringing back what I have found out. 

Woman Runner in Black Crop Top Sitting and Drinking Water at Marathon Juliano Ferreira

When we speak of “indicators of a good workout”, we have to define what a “good workout” is. When we exercise, we set certain goals. These can range from staying in shape, to losing a few extra pounds, gaining muscle mass, or to changing the shape of a certain body part. In this case, we are going to define a “good workout” as a workout that has helped you come closer to your goal, one way or another. We are not focusing on workouts with the goal of increased aerobic capacity since these workouts do not often result in soreness (your heart and lungs can't get “sore”). However, we will include more cardiovascularly intensive sports that have a goal of bettering a physical ability, such as running or swimming faster or biking farther. So, we will be focusing specifically on muscular or physical improvement rather than heart and lung health (although both of these are very important for your health as well). 

I started my research by looking into the actual concept of soreness, also known as DOMS. It stands for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, and, contrary to popular belief, this is the real culprit behind your muscle aches rather than the lactic acid that is often blamed for the discomfort. DOMS is caused by microtears in your muscle tissue when you perform a lengthening contraction, like the lengthening portion of a bicep curl. The miniature tears cause an immune response from the body, which results in the inflammation and pain we feel a few days after a workout. There are a few causes to DOMS, some of which include a new exercise that you are not used to, renewed physical activity after prolonged stagnation, or over-exercising.

John Arano H4I9G Jade Stephens / Unsplash

After getting a solid background on the nature and causes of DOMS, I dug into whether or not it is a good indicator of a productive workout. According to Applied Fitness Solutions, soreness is not always indicative of a good workout. Due to the fact that DOMS is caused by microtears in the muscle tissue, if the muscle isn’t stretched, you will be less likely to do any damage. Hence, if the exercises you perform are largely contractile (such as abdominal crunches, leg extensions, or bicep curls) you will not be tearing muscle tissue enough to achieve soreness. Furthermore, you might be tearing your muscles, but your body’s healing efficiency might be high enough to repair the damage done overnight, leaving you pain-free in the morning. In his interview with Men’s Journal, Jeremy DuVall (CPT) he states that while soreness is an “indicator of a hard workout, it’s not necessarily the best indicator of a good workout.” This is due to the fact that a new exercise will leave you sore, but as you continue practicing it for a few weeks, your body will get used to it, and hence no longer experiencing soreness. However, that does not diminish the benefits of the exercise. As soon as you change it up a little, by adding weights, for example, your body will be strained anew.

Considering both the professional interview, the journal articles, and the causes of DOMS, I personally concluded that muscle soreness isn’t the best indicator of a good workout. Logically, you can have a fantastic workout that burns hundreds of calories, improves your balance, boosts your mood and increases your strength without causing soreness. Nearly every workout causes some tear and wear in muscle tissue, but soreness within a day or two is just indicative of the fact that your body did not have time to repair the damage. Truly, in order to be sore, you don’t need to work out that aggressively, if at all. Even a new stretch can cause muscle soreness, if it’s done improperly or to an extreme. All that needs to be done is for the muscle to stretch enough to where it tears a little. So in conclusion, no- muscle soreness is not a good indicator of a good workout. As your body adapts to your regime, you will notice less soreness over time. If you truly want a little bit of pain the next day, I would recommend switching up your routine, increasing the weights, or finding a new exercise.