Roughly 2 years ago I was obsessed with the idea that I couldn’t leave the gym unless I felt completely beat. If I were focusing on legs that day, you better believe my legs had to be shaking. Otherwise the workout didn’t count.
If I were focusing on cardio or metabolic conditioning, I needed to be covered in sweat. I craved that feeling of my shirt being drenched. I wasn’t alone in this feeling. Nearly every single person out there who trains regularly becomes slightly sadistic.
They become addicted to that crazy endorphin rush that follows a ridiculously grueling workout. Each workout becomes an attempt to top the previous one. If you’re not waking up in the morning dreading the staircase, it’s a failure. If you can’t fold your clothes because your shoulders hurt so badly, then did you even really work out shoulders?
Does that really make any sense at all though? Does muscle soreness really equal a good workout?
In short, hell to the no.
Sweat is nothing more than your body making an attempt to cool itself off. That’s it. You went to a spin class and sweated through your shirt and got swamp ass? That’s great. I sat in a 180 degree sauna and got sweaty as hell. Does that mean I burned the same amount of calories? Of course not.
Just because a workout left you covered in sweat doesn’t indicate that it made you better off. Some of the greatest strength gains in my training career thus far came from 3 months of workouts in which I barely ever got “sweaty” by normal standards. Yet I saw the weight I repped for 3 reps on deadlift increase by nearly 60bs.
Some of the most intense workouts in the world can have you dripping sweat like a whore in church. That alone doesn’t mean they were a good workout, or more importantly, part of an effective overall training program.
So you had one of those ridiculously grueling leg days where your legs start shaking and you still have at least another 30 minutes left.
Have we ever stopped to think about what a really hard work out is? If you ask me to run a half marathon, that would be a really hard 3+ hour workout. I haven’t run any sort of distance in months. It just isn’t my goal.
If I asked you to go through a typical strength workout that’s a part of a powerlifting program, you might not be able to walk for a few days. You’d question your very existence in this world and wonder why the hell anyone would ever willingly subject themselves to that.
In both cases, did that make either of us better though?
The mark of a good program is one in which the training sessions are full of challenging workouts, that support your goal. They incorporate a principle known as progressive overload. Constantly using the same training stimulus (running, lifting, etc) and making small incremental gains through weights used, time under tension (tempo of a lift), rep range variation, time taken to complete the training session, etc. There are also periods of training in which you back off and it feels like you’re hardly even working out.
Does that mean that you’re not getting anything from those?
The exact opposite. Those sessions where you back way off, often referred to as a deload week, serve a huge purpose. They exist specifically to allow for recovery, and are pivotal in the rest of the program being successful.
Anyone who is in decent shape can go out and beat themselves into the ground with a marathon training session. They probably won’t be able to work out for very long in the grand scheme of things. Their CNS (central nervous system) will fatigue, their body will start to break down, minor injuries will pop up, and they’ll experience burnout. All because they pushed the pedal to the metal in the name of being “hardcore”.
Muscle soreness is a strange phenomenon.
It’s caused by what we call DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness. DOMS can last anywhere from 24-48 hours. Some people, usually new trainees, say they feel it longer. DOMS usually shows up when you perform a new exercise, or experience some completely novel training experience.
For example, if I jumped right into an endurance running program I’d feel DOMS like crazy in my calves, IT band, hips, hamstrings, feet and ankles. I’m not used to that style training and my muscles would remind me of that.
Everything behind DOMS hasn’t been figured out, but it’s very evident that DOMS alone an effective workout does not make.
Soreness is a highly variable thing. Some people feel sore after every single workout. Some always feel it after hitting one muscle group. Some hardly ever feel sore at all. Most people who get further along in their training career feel DOMS far less than they used to. To get DOMS, it would usually require a complete shift in the style of training.
DOMS do seem to tell us a decent indicator if the workout was really damaging to the muscle (not the only indicator if the workout was “good” or “effective”), which is something people focused on hypertrophy (growth) want to know. The general rule is that the more damage you can cause to a single muscle, or group of muscles, the more those will subsequently grow. If you’re focused specifically on growth, then DOMS might be the most applicable to you.
All of that being said though, muscle soreness is a terrible indicator of a workout being good. Something so subjective that changes from person to person, training session to training session, fails to tell us if someone is progressing.
What does tell us that is keeping detailed training logs, and looking back on the sets, reps, and weights used. These are specific measureable variables that we can look back at and use to prove without a doubt that training is working.
What gets measured gets managed – Peter Druker.
What does this mean for you? It means that just because the workout you did yesterday that left you feeling beat, but didn’t leave you feeling sore, was a complete shit workout. Some of the best workouts you might ever do might leave you so sore that you can’t walk. Then again they also might leave you feeling so good you question whether you even did anything yesterday.