Is soreness a good indicator of a good workout?

Dear Alice,

My trainer is getting annoyed because I am not experiencing soreness. I have been working out now with him and other trainers, three times a week, for three months now. Plus I do 45 minutes of cardio four times a week.

I think it's kind of odd that he bases his progress on how sore his clients are. I was always led to believe that soreness in muscles comes from working newfound muscle groups or aggressive workouts. During our workout I am feeling my muscles being worked and I have lost a number of inches and lbs since I have been working out. It seems to be a large issue with some of the trainers at this gym. I am wondering why! Also he had me doing 420 lbs on my legs. I am not a body builder nor do I want to be. I started to tone up. Advise please!

— Pushed too far?

Dear Pushed too far,  

 It’s true that muscle soreness usually occurs with new workout regimens or intense physical activity. When you engage muscles in new ways, you may experience some muscle soreness — whether by trying a new activity, changing the intensity of your workout, or changing your routine.  While it may feel discouraging, it can actually be a sign that your muscles are growing. Muscle soreness isn’t just for those starting to be more physically active; in fact, professional athletes may experience muscle soreness during intense training periods as well. While soreness can indicate muscle growth, it doesn’t mean you aren’t making those gains just because you don’t experience it. In fact, too much of a good thing (in this case, physical activity) may not always be a positive. Taking rest days can help your body recover and maximize the benefits of your physical activity regimen. 

So what is this soreness? Muscle soreness, or delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), is caused by microscopic damage to muscle fibers. Soreness can last anywhere from one to five days after your workout. Previously, it was believed that muscle soreness was caused by a build-up of lactic acid, but it turns out that lactic acid leaves the body approximately an hour after exercising. Although DOMS is a common experience, you don’t need to experience muscle soreness to have a successful workout. The feeling you mentioned — of your muscles being worked — can also be an indication of a successful workout. If, however, you’re experiencing pain after physical activity, it's possible that you may have worked your muscles too hard.  

Being too physically active can have its drawbacks. If you don’t have enough recovery time between workouts, or if you’re not replenishing the fuel you burn, you may experience overtraining syndrome (OTS). Overtraining can cause hormonal imbalances in the body, leading to symptoms such as moodiness, fatigue, muscle pain, insomnia, increased stress, or loss of appetite. It can also increase your risk of injury and decrease the effectiveness of your workouts. Pushed too far, it sounds like you have a serious workout regimen. You may want to consider adding rest days every so often to give your body time to recover. Even if you aren’t feeling sore, you may still experience other symptoms. If you do start to feel overworked, there’s evidence that post-activity massages can be effective at reducing muscle damage and pain from DOMS, and they can decrease the risk of fatigue. You may also want to consider wearing compression garments or bathing in cold water to reduce inflammation. Finally, anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen may help with pain management, but they aren’t intended to be taken as a frequent treatment.  

To your point about your trainer measuring progress based on soreness, have you spoken to him about your concerns? Open and honest communication about what you’re looking for in your training sessions may help alleviate some of the conflicts you’re currently experiencing. You might also discuss or reiterate your fitness goals with your trainer. Perhaps giving your trainer an idea of specific exercises that you feel comfortable or uncomfortable with will help your him design the right regimen for you. You may also want to consider if this trainer is the right fit for you. Do you feel that he listens to the feedback you provide? Do you feel comfortable discussing your hesitations with your trainer? Is his approach aligned with your fitness goals? If you feel that you and your trainer are unable to come to an agreement, it may be time to find someone new. Your comfort and safety are top priority, so if you feel that your trainer isn’t respecting that, there’s no harm in looking for a new one.  

There are many ways to determine whether you had a good workout, and muscle soreness isn’t always one of them. However, if you do start to experience soreness, it’s wise to rest up, massage it out, ice it up, and take it easy on your workout intensity. Slow and steady wins the race! 

Last updated Jan 29, 2021
Originally published Mar 06, 2003

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