Why do you get sore after working out?
According to Cedric Unholz, strength and conditioning coach and former senior performance scientist at WHOOP, post-sweat muscle soreness is scientifically known as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). “This soreness is typically caused by exercise involving eccentric loading and/or unfamiliar movements that the body is unaccustomed to at the time of the training session,” he explains. “Symptoms include stiffness, decreased joint range of motion (ROM), reduced force/power production capacity, and inflammation.”
Rondel King, MS, an exercise physiologist in New York City, adds that soreness essentially means that you’ve damaged your muscle fibers (which is necessary for gains).
While all of those things (save for gains) sound less than pleasant, I’d be lying if I said those side effects don’t sometimes feel like the goal. 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," King says. "But it gets to a point where it's not necessary to feel that soreness."
If I do not feel sore after working out, am I doing it wrong?
Believe it or not, not feeling sore after a workout could actually mean that you’re in better shape than you might think. “Working out or doing resistance training is providing a stimulus to 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,” King explains. "[But] 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.” With that in mind, he says that not feeling sore after a workout can actually be a good indicator if you’re an avid gym-goer because it means your body is adapting to the stress and strain of lifting and moving.
Which is all to say, just because you aren’t sore after a workout doesn’t mean that your workout was worthless. Rather, when you no longer feel sore performing certain exercises, it can be a sign that you’ve leveled up your fitness.
So why am I not sore after a workout?
1. You didn’t prepare properly
Sometimes soreness isn't from your workout at all, but how your body was prepped—or, not prepared—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," says celebrity trainer Chase Weber. So, if you’re wondering how to not be sore after a workout, know that the first step is showing up fully prepared before you even begin to lift or move.
Even if you’re not working out daily, staying on top of hydration, nutrition, sleep, and your overall exertion is important to keep your body and mind feeling their best. It’s when you don’t put emphasis on these things that you may feel sore even if you haven’t worked out in a few days. Of course, we know that creating and maintaining healthy habits can be difficult. Thankfully, fitness devices like WHOOP 4.0 exist. The WHOOP band pairs with a Wi-Fi-enabled app to track not only the wearer's fitness but sleep, respiratory rate, resting heartbeat, variable heartbeat, and more. The app even has a journal feature that lets you track over 100 common lifestyle habits (like stretching, cryotherapy, carb intake, water consumption, meditation) and compare your entries to your stats to determine how they lend to or take away from your body’s ability to recover day-to-day. It’s fascinating, really.
2. Your fitness is improving
Another good reason why you may not be sore after working out 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."
3. Your body has adapted—and it’s time to switch it up
"Muscle soreness is a good marker of exercise intensity," King says. "If you do a move and come back in a couple of days and do it again without feeling sore afterward, 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."
4. You didn’t push yourself hard enough
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.
That said, if you don’t feel like you pushed yourself, Unholz says it may be time to increase the training load and volume during your next workout.
“It really depends on the type of training being performed, the training goal(s) of the individual, and more information about the individual themselves,” he adds. “[A lack of soreness] may also be that the goal of the workout is to stimulate the system without causing pronounced soreness such as during a pre-running race competition peaking phase. In the latter case, movement intent is very high, but the movements and loads used should cause no significant soreness based on the purpose of that session.”
5. You’re skipping out on eccentric exercises
Not all exercises are created equally and, as such, they don’t all lead to the same type of (if any) soreness. Generally speaking, Unholz says that eccentric exercises are responsible for causing soreness, as they’re the main drivers for inducing muscle damage. So, if you’re not sore post-sweat, he says that the workout likely didn’t provide a substantial amount of eccentric stress. (There’s nothing wrong with that though! After all, not all workouts are designed to provide such.)
More FAQs Surrounding Muscle Soreness
Should you be sore after every workout?
Still wondering if you should be sore after every workout? If it’s an identical workout—with unchanging weight, reps, or sets—the answer is no. The reason? You want your body to adapt so that you can eventually level up.
Are you still building muscle if you're not sore?
Sure are! According to Unholz, muscle gains are determined by three factors: mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress.
“From a programming perspective, these three factors must be applied in conjunction with the foundational training principles of specificity, progressive overload, recovery planning, and appropriate periodization principles for optimal muscle growth outcomes,” he says. “[That said], it is possible to build muscle without resulting soreness as muscle damage is only one of the key driving factors that correlates with hypertrophy.”
That doesn’t mean you should avoid soreness at all costs though. “When looking to build muscle, engaging in training that does not result in some degree of muscle soreness periodically is likely to produce suboptimal results,” Unholz warns.
Can I work out every day if I'm not sore?
It depends on the workout. Most times, CPTs recommend working out three to five days per week with active recovery days in between. “It is definitely possible to work out every day if you are not sore depending on what training is being performed—for example alternating between resistance training and aerobic training days,” Unholz says.
Is it bad to stay sore for four days after a workout?
It really depends on the individual. Where dedicated gym rats may rarely feel sore, workout newbies likely will experience soreness for longer than just a day or so. "Soreness just means you worked a muscle that hasn't been worked in a while, or that the muscle didn't have enough endurance,” Weber says, noting that it’s not typically something to be concerned about. “It could also be sore or more tender than normal because it was a different movement."
If, however, your soreness does feel concerning, it never hurts to consult a doctor or PT for a second opinion and overall peace of mind.
How to treat and prevent delayed onset muscle soreness
While soreness can mean that you’re working in the right direction, there’s no denying that it’s not always convenient and it’s rarely comfortable. Thankfully, there are ways to treat and prevent muscle soreness. According to Unholz, the best ways to do so are as follows:
- Use an appropriate weight when lifting—it should be challenging but not impossible
- Space out eccentric workouts to give your body more time to recover
- Get plenty of sleep
- Incorporate active recovery into your routine
- Consider thermal therapy (hot and cold modalities can work wonders for recovery)
Book a massage—or give yourself one with a percussive device, like a Theragun Mini ($199)—to speed up muscle recovery.
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