Should you be sore after training? My old high school football coaches would tell me that the session was a waste if I wasn’t. Even after graduating, I carried this mentality with me for many years of training. At that time, it was a common belief that being sore led to growth because it meant you were working hard.
However, the point of this blog is not to accept the commonly held beliefs as law, but instead to dig into the science behind the claims and judge their validity.
So, do you actually need to be sore after training in order for your muscles to grow? And if so, how sore should you be?
As with many things in health and fitness, it is more nuanced than a simple yes or no answer. Let’s do a little digging to get some more clarity on this great question.
Why Am I Sore After Lifting?
First off, let’s lay down some basics.
When we are performing resistance strength training exercises, we are stressing the muscles and causing little microtears to happen in the muscle tissue. This occurs mostly during the eccentric phase of an exercise, as the muscles are forcefully lengthened. There is believed to be some tearing during the concentric phase of the exercise as well, however, it is significantly less since the act of contracting the muscle is not as prone to the microtears .
The feeling of soreness is believed to be a symptom of the inflammation that occurs as a byproduct of these tears . In response to these microtears, the body builds the torn muscle back stronger than before, which can lead to increases in size and strength.
You will typically notice the sore feeling 6-8 hours after the training session, referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). The soreness will typically peak about 48 hours after the session, depending on how much damage the body is repairing. The intensity of your soreness post workout is highly variable between individuals and can depend on factors such as exercise intensity, experience level, and genetics.
As your muscles build up a tolerance to an intensity level of training, the next-day soreness will typically be less, if any. A new lifter will typically be very sore the days after a training session because they have not had a chance to build up the tolerance yet.
However, just because you are becoming more experienced, does not mean you are safe from being sore the next day. If you increase the intensity of your training above your current level, you might find yourself feeling sore all over again as your body has a new level of intensity to adapt to. Adding intensity can come from performing more reps, more sets, more weight, different rep patterns, etc. If you perform different exercises than you are accustomed to, you may also notice yourself significantly more sore than usual.
Now that we have the basics, let’s jump to the real question everyone is here for:
Do You Need to Feel Sore to Gain Muscle or Strength?
The short answer is no. You do not need to feel muscle soreness to experience muscle growth (hypertrophy).
As was stated earlier, muscle soreness is a sign of muscle damage and muscle damage can lead to muscle growth. However, soreness is only one sign of muscle damage. Muscle damage can and does occur without the perceived soreness . Therefore, hypertrophy can occur without feeling sore.
It should also be noted that muscle soreness can occur without the hypertrophic effect. For example, marathon runners will often report muscle soreness after the event. However, running long distances is not something that has been associated with a muscle building effect. As a result, the soreness you would experience after a long run would not be leading to increases in muscle size.
Therefore, muscle soreness can be related to muscle and strength growth but there is not a 100% correlation between the two. So, just because you are not sore after a lift, does not mean you are missing out on the opportunity to gain muscle or strength.
Still, many people like to feel at least somewhat sore after a lift because they perceive it as a sign that they are growing. This can be true, however it leads to the question:
Should I Lift to Feel Sore?
At the end of the day, soreness is not a sign of progress. Making progress is the sign of making progress in the gym.
You may be thinking, well no shit Sherlock, and you would be right. But ultimately, you will know when you are making progress in the gym if you are able to do more weight/more reps, look better in the mirror, or have a better proficiency with a certain movement. Something like feeling sore does not have to be present to see that you are making progress.
However, if you have plateaued and are no longer making progress in the gym over several weeks, it may be time to look at your training style and switch things up. When you switch something up in your program, observing if you feel sore the next day can be a useful tool to see if the change has had an effect on your body. This is because soreness can be a good indicator of an increase in intensity for your training, which can be a helpful stimulus for muscle growth.
It should also be noted that soreness can actually be a negative when training. For instance, if your legs are sore after a session and that soreness persists until your next leg session, it can be a sign that your body has not fully recovered between the sessions. This means that your muscles will not be capable of delivering the same output as they would if they were fresh, hindering some growth potential.
While you can train with sore muscles, recovery is very important for your body to continue growing and to also avoid injury. So constantly being sore could mean you are not allowing proper time for recovery. If this is the case, it may be time to make some adjustments to your program, whether that means training less frequently or using a different split.
The concept of soreness as a gauge for muscle recovery becomes more important in regards to your training frequency. If you are someone who trains full body multiple times a week, you want to make sure that your body is recovering between sessions to avoid overtraining. This would mean that training to an intensity that leaves you sore can be counterproductive if you are still sore for your next session.
Again, while you can train while sore, it might be a better idea to hit a muscle group that is not sore at your next session, since recovery is important.
So, while soreness can be used as a sign of muscle damage that could lead to muscle growth, it can also be used as a sign of how you are recovering from your lifts. Just like many things in health and fitness, it has some levels of nuance to it and can be used in different ways. Use the information how you will. Even if that means ignoring it 🙂
May the gains be with you,
 Schoenfeld, Brad J. MSc, CSCS, CSPS1; Contreras, Bret MA, CSCS2 Is Postexercise Muscle Soreness a Valid Indicator of Muscular Adaptations?, Strength and Conditioning Journal: October 2013 – Volume 35 – Issue 5 – p 16-21 doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3182a61820 https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/fulltext/2013/10000/is_postexercise_muscle_soreness_a_valid_indicator.2.aspx