No Pain, No Gain?

If I’m Not Sore, Does That Mean I Didn’t Have a Good Workout?


If you don’t experience soreness after a workout, does that mean you also did not experience muscle growth (AKA hypertrophy)? Does the phrase “no pain, no gain” really hold true? Many people judge the effectiveness of a workout on the soreness they feel the following day, but this may not be the most accurate means by which to assess the integrity of our programming.


Studies have shown DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) can occur in marathoners and long distance cyclers, both of which are not traditionally hypertrophic (muscle building) activities (Schoenfeld 2013). This illustrates that muscle damage is not the only means by which to achieve hypertrophy and soreness may not be the most reliable indicator of measuring workout efficacy. So what other factors are at play that allow for muscle growth?


What Causes Muscle Growth?

A 2010 study by Schoenfield outlined 3 primary factors that lead to hypertrophy, or muscle growth. These factors are:

  1. Mechanical tension:

  • This encompasses the idea of progressive overload. Progressive overload is increasing mechanical tension on muscles. This could be increasing reps, sets, weight, or frequency of workouts.

  1. Muscle damage

  • Microscopic tears in muscles and surrounding connective tissues cause inflammation. This may lead to DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness.

  1. Metabolic stress

  • This is the idea of getting a “pump” in the gym, when blood and other metabolites build up after pushing a muscle to fatigue.

So Why Am I Sore?

Feelings of soreness arise from a concept known as DOMS or delayed onset muscle soreness. This feeling generally arises 6-8 hours following activating, and peaks 24-48 hours post training. The exact times vary from person to person, but this is one of the reasons why your hamstrings may be sore two days after heavy deadlifts.


Contrary to popular belief, soreness is not caused by lactic acid buildup. Studies have disproved the idea that lactic acid buildup is what causes DOMS. DOMS is due to a combination of factors and the exact mechanism by which it is caused is unclear. DOMS is most likely caused by a combination of microscopic tears in the muscles and surrounding connective tissue. These microtears lead to inflammation and chemical release to aid in the repair process.


Certain activities will naturally cause more soreness than others. DOMS is more likely to happen when performing a new exercise. Increasing the volume (amount of reps), frequency (how many days you exercise per week), or intensity (the amount of weight lifted) can also cause elevated soreness as your body tries to adapt.

Additionally, eccentric exercises, or “negatives” display a greater amount of DOMS.


Soreness: A Good Sign or An Indication of Overtraining?

Soreness is a good indicator of effectiveness when beginning a new training program or introducing new exercises. If you have never deadlifted, you’re going to be sore afterwards because your body is being introduced to a new stimulus. If you start a new training program with higher volume or intensity, you may experience heightened soreness. However, soreness does not need to be something you strive for on week four of the training program. Soreness should also not be the determining factor of the program’s effectiveness.


If you’re a seasoned athlete and are feeling crippling soreness months into a program, it could indicate that you aren’t giving your body adequate recovery time. Muscle damage is one of the three factors correlated with hypertrophy, but it is actually the rebuilding of that damaged muscle that leads to growth, not the microtears and inflammation initially induced by the exercise. If you’re not refueling with proper nutrition, getting adequate sleep, and taking rest days, you are just continually breaking down the muscles without allowing time for repair and growth.


It is also important to recognize that everyone responds differently to a training stimulus. Your workout buddy may experience soreness and you don’t. This does not mean that you didn’t work hard enough or aren’t going to gain the same advantages that he or she does from the workout. It simply relates to the fact that you are two different people with varying genetics, stress levels, recovery strategies, sleep patterns, and nutrition.


What Are More Reliable Markers of An Effective Workout?

A more reliable measurement of workout effectiveness would build on the concept of progressive overload. It doesn’t have to mean PRs every week but are the squats easier this week? Are you able to load more weight on the bar? Or are you able to do more reps at the same weight? THESE are accurate determinations of improvement in the gym and can signal muscle growth. It just is not as immediate or tangible a measure as muscle soreness so many people don’t trust it.


Progress can be seen outside the gym as well. Tasks that used to be strenuous are now done with ease. The groceries are lighter. It’s easier to pick up heavy things. This is progress and can definitely be a sign of muscle growth; don’t discount it!


Progress is a process. Trust the process or progressive overload and programming. Focus on effectiveness of movements, really being present with what you’re doing in the gym and why you’re doing it. Develop process goals in addition to some of your outcome goals.


Key Takeaways:

It’s time we get away from the idea of “no pain, no gain” and the utilization of soreness as the ultimate gauge for workout effectiveness. Soreness is not inherently bad. It just shouldn’t be used as the ultimate indicator of a good workout.


It’s time we shift our mindset to optimizing recovery instead of optimizing soreness. Recovery is optimized through a solid training program, proper nutrition and sleep, and an adequate amount of rest days.


It’s time we shift our training programs to focus on progression, not soreness. This can be done by capitalizing on the concept of progressive overload in our training programs.


At the end of the day, ask yourself: Are you enjoying your workouts or just striving for soreness or results? If it is the latter, it may be time to hire a coach to help break this cycle.


Here at Prime, we do more than just physical therapy. We also build programs using evidence-based practice to design the most effective workout plan based upon each individual’s biomechanics and overall goals. Reach out to info@primperformancerehab.com to schedule your initial evaluation!