Is Muscle Soreness an Indicator of A Good Workout?

Several weeks ago I tweaked my back while practicing deadlift technique (Ironic, FML) and since then I’ve been spending clearing up some movement imbalances that I have.  As I feel more comfortable in my movement, I’ve been comfortably loading the bar, and on Tuesday I had what I considered my first “real” training session.

I’m defining “real” as me listening to Rage Against the Machine instead of an audiobook or podcast.  It’s also because I finally felt like I was moving weight.  My last set of squats was 185lbs for 6, and holy shit Harold that’s not even heavy.

I felt awesome when I was done, but on Wednesday night, the DOMS dropped.


I’ve moved through a variety of squat patterns on a daily basis since the tweak, but loading it, even at 45% brought on some soreness.  This made me think of what soreness is and why the hell we like it so much.

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is caused by microtrauma (tiny little tears)  in your muscles, and is normally associated with eccentric or lengthening contractions.  Our bodies respond to this damage by rapidly rebuilding tissues, and decides that making them stronger will help prevent future soreness.  Damn, your body is smart!

If an exercise is brand new to you, you may find yourself with some legitimate soreness; the kind that makes you dread stairs, and use support when getting off of the toilet.  Just as we associate a “pump” during training to be indicative of a good training session, we associate this muscle soreness with a good training session.  Cut that shit out.  Being sore post workout means that you did something that your body wasn’t used to.  It isn’t necessarily good, it isn’t necessarily bad.  It’s just a new stimulus.

There are a lot of things that you can do to make you sore.  This is one of them:


If you have a lot of training experience, you may find that nothing makes you sore.  If you’re relatively new to training, you may find that everything makes you sore.  Good for everybody!

I strongly believe that training should enhance your quality of life, not diminish it.  In many cases, this means integrating new exercises strategically so that soreness is minimal and learning is maximal. (Click to Tweet!Many of us see the best results by training the complete body more frequently, rather than relying on soreness once or twice per week.

Strength Suggestions

Muscle Soreness is part of strength training, and sometimes there’s no way to avoid it.  That being said, there are strategies to manipulate our levels of soreness.  The simplest approach that I’ve found is finding balance between open chain and closed chain exercises.  In essence, open chain exercises allows you foot or hand to move freely and spaces, while in closed chain exercises it’s in a fixed position.


In my experience, open chain exercises typically create more soreness than closed chain exercises, part of the reason I like closed chain exercises for most new trainees.  We can create the best training effect possible while minimizing soreness, meaning we have less discomfort and can train more frequently.

If we were creating a push/pull/legs group of three exercises, I’d tend to pick a push-up, a bodyweight row variation, and a split squat for a newer trainee to nail technique without excessive soreness.  As they made progress in their movement quality, strength, and endurance, they may progress to a dumbbell bench press, a kettlebell bent over row, and a reverse lunge.  As a loose rule, anytime we’re responsible for catching or balancing a weight, there can be more potential for soreness.

Conditioning Concepts

One of the simplest and sexiest conditioning tools out there, sprinting may be the pinnacle of exercises to do wherever the hell you want.  As great as it is, many of us run into problems because we’re not strong enough to transmit and absorb the forces we create.  Ruh-oh!

A safer and less-sore version is the Hill Sprint.  Running up a hill reduces ground contact forces, let’s you run with better technique, and can provide a more potent punch.  Everything wins.  You can repeat this on stairs, too, if hills aren’t in your area but stadiums are around.  If you want to really slow down your speed, pushing or pulling a sled is where it’s at.

Kettlebell Swings are one of the best exercises out there, but when aggressively loading or including them, the ‘bell is the Dutchess of DOMS.  Take heed when learning to swing; quality reps are awesome.  Aggressively throwing heavy metal at your crotch for extended periods of time can make your hamstrings hate you.

The Hill is your friend.

All of our exercise goals are related to looking good or feeling good.  We may associate muscle soreness with progress, but DOMS only indicates that you did more.  More is not always better.  Better is better.

Focus on moving well, then make incremental progress. The Rules of Progressive Overload  never fail us, but our excitement to see results may.  Progressing movement, inflating volume, and visual cues (mirrors, pictures) can give us a better appraisal of progress than soreness.  Let’s learn the difference and train smarter.

3 Replies to “Is Muscle Soreness an Indicator of A Good Workout?”

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