Having been in the fitness industry for the past four years as both a personal trainer and a strength and conditioning coach amongst professional athletes, as well as being a regular gym goer myself, I have noticed a consistent trend which revolves around the saying “no pain no gain”. Too often will I hear people complain that the workout wasn’t good because they aren’t sore, or they want to change up their program because they don’t get sore the next day anymore. This is all based off the idea that muscle damage indicated by pain is necessary to allow for muscle remodeling and eventual growth and progression in performance, well I’m here to tell you that this isn’t true, and in fact this idea may be hindering your training progress!

The facts

Muscle growth is directly related to the rate of protein synthesis within the body There is no relationship between muscle damage and increases in protein synthesis, there only appears to be a larger immune response associated with inflammation. A study was conducted which used two training groups, one pre-trained during a ramp protocol and one non-trained who jumped straight into a muscle damaging routine. Over an 11-week protocol both groups participated in a weights program and performed close to identical amounts of work measured in kilojoules (see the first graph below). Creatine Kinase (CK) measures were used as an indirect measure of muscle damage. The non-trained group showed levels of CK indicative of muscle damage throughout the protocol and the pre-trained group never showed significant levels (see the second graph below). At the end of the protocol both groups showed a near identical increase in muscle size.

Workloadws of both groups over the weeks – pretty much the same

Workloads of both groups over the weeks – pretty much the same

Measured CK levels in both groups – clearly the pre-trained group were all below the damage threshold compared to the other group

Measured CK levels in both groups – clearly the pre-trained group were all below the damage threshold compared to the other group.

What does this tell us? It tells us that soreness isn’t a necessary step in hypertrophy or increases in force production and that instead following the principles of progressive overload and accumulating volume overtime at various intensities will allow for optimal rates of protein synthesis through constant activation of pathways responsible for this process.

Why we should avoid consistent muscle damage

There is more than one reason why training just achieve soreness may be negatively affecting our training.

  1. Compromising the program to achieve soreness – In order to achieve this soreness people will often increase their workload by implementing additional sets/reps, adding in drop sets or super sets and resultantly, a large increase in training volume which can easily throw off proper progression.
  2. Increased fatigue – by rapidly increasing volume to try and cause muscle damage we will also see increases in fatigue level due to stress associated with the immune response. The immediate effect of this may be a poor workout the following day or rest of the week, while more long term effects may include the onset of non-functional overreaching.
  3. Injuries – training while sore may increase our risk of injury, when we are sore and have increased levels of CK in the blood, there is compromised muscle tissue which will have a reduced force producing capacity, this will cause compensation from other areas of the body, causing inefficient muscle activation which increases the risk of injury.
  4. Rhabdomyolysis – is clinically diagnosed muscle damage and can be the result of direct large trauma such as a crushing injury during an accident but has also been associated with excessive prolonged muscle damage and the metabolic disturbance associated with overtraining. The symptoms of rhabdomyolysis include severe muscle pain, nausea, fever and even loss of consciousness.
  5. Nobody wants to be sore – being sore all the time may eventually reduce your motivation to train and result in a lack of program adherence.

Summary

  • Muscle growth is related to the rate of protein synthesis within the cells.
  • Progressive overload, volume accumulation and recovery are responsible for hypertrophy and performance gains.
  • There is no relationship between increases muscle damage and increased performance.
  • Ongoing muscle soreness can result in fatigue, reduced progress, lack of adherence and more serious conditions such as rhabdomyolysis.

Does this mean all soreness is bad and you should cease training immediately?
No, but muscle soreness should never be the goal of exercise.

Reference:

Marianne F. Baird, Scott M. Graham, Julien S. Baker, and Gordon F. Bickerstaff, “Creatine-Kinase- and Exercise-Related Muscle Damage Implications for Muscle Performance and Recovery,” Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, vol. 2012, Article ID 960363, 13 pages, 2012. doi:10.1155/2012/960363