Muscle Soreness Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Muscle Growth
Most people think that really sore muscles is a good sign–that it means the muscles are growing.
This seems to make intuitive sense, of course. We’re training to damage our muscles, and muscle damage leads to muscle soreness, so therefore little or no soreness would mean little or no damage and thus little or no gains, right?
“Because of generally poor correlations between DOMS [delayed onset muscle soreness] and other indicators, we conclude that use of DOMS is a poor reflector of eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage and inflammation, and changes in indirect markers of muscle damage and inflammation are not necessarily accompanied with DOMS.”
In other words, damaged muscles won’t necessarily hurt, and muscles that hurt aren’t necessarily much damaged.
The exact physiology behind this isn’t fully understood yet (muscle growth is a very complicated process), but one study demonstrated that at least some of the pain we’re feeling in muscle soreness stems from the connective tissue holding muscle fibers together, not from the actual fibers themselves.
We also know that the more often the muscles are exposed to certain types of stimuli, the less sore they become as a result. That doesn’t mean they won’t grow bigger and stronger, though.
Certain exercises also cause more soreness than others, but those aren’t necessarily the most effective exercises for building strength or size. For instance, the stretching involved in dumbbell flys is likely to cause soreness, but they’re a pretty poor movement for adding mass when compared to something like incline bench press, which is likely to cause less soreness.
Personally, I only get really sore from a workout if I missed it the week prior. When I’m in my normal routine, I only get mildly sore, and I work hard in the gym. And I continue to build strength and size.
So, the bottom line with muscle soreness is this: it doesn’t tell us much regarding whether we’re making gains or not. Don’t think that excessive soreness means major muscle growth, and don’t worry if you’re not getting sore.
How to Reduce Muscle Soreness and Improve Muscle Recovery
Before I get to workable strategies for reducing muscle soreness, I want to go over a few commonly commonly prescribed solutions that I don’t recommend:
Ice bath or other “cold therapy” strategies.Research has shown they don’t reduce muscle soreness, so no need to suffer through them.
Do some foam rolling. According to this study, foam rolling reduces the severity of DOMS that occurs after training, and increases range of motion.
Active recovery can help. Active recovery is simply a workout that’s easier than the one that caused the soreness, and it’s one you should finish feeling better than when you started. This has been proven to reduce muscle soreness. My favorite forms of active recovery are biking for the legs, and swimming for the upper body.
Enjoy some yoga. Yup, research has shown that yoga can help reduce muscle soreness. I did one yoga class per week for a couple months to try this and definitely noticed a reduction in muscle stiffness and soreness.
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