There are a couple of things I love about being done with a workout. Number one is that I’m riding high on endorphins. And two is that I get to feel that uber-satisfying accomplishment of having sore muscles.
I mean, yeah it sucks when going up stairs hurts and my legs feel really heavy—but it also makes me feel proud, because I know that I’ve put in some good work during my sweat sesh. It’s also exactly why I get kind of mad if my muscles aren’t sore after a workout.
I’m not alone, either—being sore has become fitness currency of sorts. It’s definitely misleading, though. “If you’re a high-level athlete or a seasoned gym-goer, you’re trying all sorts of things to feel soreness because it gives you that feeling that you’re accomplished,” says Rondel King, MS, an exercise physiologist at NYU Langone Sports Performance Center. “But it gets to a point where it’s not necessary to feel that soreness.”
It’s not like your workout didn’t mean anything, BTW. But experts note that muscle soreness does not necessarily equate a good workout. “If you’re not sore after a workout, it doesn’t mean that you didn’t workout,” says Chase Weber, a celebrity trainer. (I mean, of course.) “Soreness just means you worked a muscle that hasn’t been worked in a while, or that the muscle didn’t have enough endurance. It could also be sore or more tender than normal because it was a different movement.” He also adds that sometimes soreness isn’t from your workout at all, but how your body was prepped—or, not prepped—properly beforehand. “Soreness can also mean that you didn’t hydrate, you didn’t properly fuel yourself, or your body may be tired, which means it’s exerting itself even more,” he says. So diet and lifestyle habits count too.
King adds that it’s not actually a bad thing if your muscles aren’t dragging after your sweat sesh: “There’s a threshold of how much you can do, and a threshold to strength and the amount of repetitions you can do. So some individuals do plateau,” he says. “It’s actually good that you don’t feel sore, if you’re an avid gym-goer, because it just means your body has built up and adapted to what you do to it. It’s not necessary to feel sore all the time.”
“It’s actually good that you don’t feel sore, if you’re an avid gym-goer, because it just means your body has built up and adapted to what you do to it.” —Rondel King
After all, muscle soreness stems from breaking down muscles, anyways. “When your muscles experience pain or that discomfort, it essentially means you’ve done damage to the muscle fibers,” King explains. “This is a good thing too, when it’s within a certain threshold of course. Working out or doing resistance training is providing a stimulus to those muscles and actually changes them structurally, so you’re damaging them to a point where you can move them through a new range of motion.”
Another good reason why you may not be sore is that your fitness game is improving. “It may be saying that you’re getting in better shape,” says Weber. “You may be ready to move up in your weights, take it to the next step, and move things up a notch. You are probably accomplishing some goals and not in as bad of shape as you think you are.” Well, that’s good news.
“Muscle soreness is a good marker of exercise intensity,” says King. “If you do a move and come back in a couple of days and do it again without feeling sore afterwards, that means your body has adapted. So providing a new stimulus all of the time and tracking the load and volume and intensity over time to help design a proper program that is well-rounded will help get you to your goals.”
Really, it all comes down to whether or not you’re doing your best when working out. “If you pushed yourself, that’s what matters,” says Weber. Otherwise, if you’re truly not satisfied until your body’s shot, take it as a sign to be more explosive the next time you exercise—that’s never a bad thing.
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