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Why Being Sore Doesn’t Mean You’re Getting Stronger

Judge your workout by performance gains, not by how you feel the next day.

by
Mark Rippetoe

Bio

June 19, 2014 - 9:00 am
Prowler Push

A weighted sled has no eccentric component, thus no soreness.

Training with weights produces muscle soreness. Many people don’t like to be sore, and that’s why they won’t train for strength. Running also makes you sore, but not as bad and not all over the body, like weights, so running is more popular. Other people have noticed that riding a bike doesn’t produce sore muscles, so they ride a bike for exercise instead of lifting weights or running. But to some people — and this may come as a surprise to most of you — getting sore becomes the whole point of exercise. They wear their soreness like a badge of honor, and regard sore muscles as the price they must pay for continued self-improvement.

Here are some facts.

Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is a phenomenon associated with certain types of muscular work. It can occur as the result of exercise or manual labor, and is a perfectly natural consequence of unaccustomed physical exertion. There are a couple of different theories about its actual cause at the cellular level, which are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that DOMS has nothing to do with lactic acid production during exercise, and that it is an inflammatory response to certain types of muscular work which therefore responds to NSAIDs like naproxen, ibuprofen, and aspirin.

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Muscles are the contractile motors that operate the system of levers we call the skeleton. Muscles work by generating “tension,” or pulling force between their attachment points on the bones they operate; they pull on these two points of attachment with varying degrees of force. They generate this pull under three modes of operation:

1. Concentric muscle contraction occurs when the muscle generates tension as it gets shorter. This action is familiar when you see a dumbbell being curled in the hand; as the elbow bends and the weight approaches the shoulder, the biceps muscle gets shorter. When you stand up from sitting in a chair, the muscles that operate your knees and hips got shorter, and worked concentrically.

2. Eccentric muscle contraction occurs when your muscles generate tension as they lengthen. When you lower the dumbbell or sit back down in the chair, the same muscles controlled the descent eccentrically by generating tension as they get longer, thus letting your elbow straighten or your knees and hips re-bend under control. Bodybuilders call this the “negative” part of an exercise.

3. Isometric muscle contraction occurs when you control your position by keeping the muscle the same length. As the knees and hips lower you into the chair, your back muscles function isometrically by holding the bones of your spine in a constant position during the movement. Even though the angle of your back with respect to the floor may change, the vertebral segments that make up your spine are held motionless in correct alignment by your back and abdominal muscles during the motion.

Adaptation to muscular work is the basis of exercise, and each type of muscular contraction must be adapted to when it is experienced. Important exercises like the squat have both eccentric, concentric, and isometric phases. Some exercises, like riding a bicycle, only work the legs concentrically; the muscles that shorten to straighten the left knee do not tense and then resist the muscles that straighten the right knee as you pedal the bike, because that would be a stupid way to pedal a bike. Each alternating knee extension is concentric-only work.

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As it turns out, eccentric muscular work is the source of muscular soreness. Concentric contractions don’t make you sore, and only poorly controlled isometric contractions (where some lengthening has in fact occurred) produce soreness. This is due to the things that happen to the contractile components of the muscle cells at the cellular level, again outside the scope of this essay.

This means that exercises with a significant eccentric component produce soreness, and that by emphasizing the “negative” part of a rep you can get really, really sore. Bench presses can be done this way: when the lifter has finished the last possible rep of a heavy set, the spotter helps pull the bar back up after the lifter lowers it to his chest under as much control as possible. Only a couple of reps are possible this way before the lifter tires so much that he cannot help the spotter get the bar back to the top, and would not be able to control the descent of another rep. The net result is a tired spotter and very sore pecs for the lifter.

It also means that exercises without a significant eccentric component, like riding a bike or pushing a weighted sled, don’t make you sore. Cyclists very seldom experience sore quads even as their legs get stronger from the work of riding up hills. But this same cyclist with strong legs will experience horrible debilitating soreness if you have him squat, because he is not adapted to the eccentric component of the work. He hasn’t lowered any weight as he climbed his hills, so the squat will murder him the first time he does it.

Prowler Push

Soreness is produced by any exercise with an eccentric component, and the muscles that work eccentrically will get sore in a predictable way until they adapt to the work. All types of squats use the quads eccentrically, and sore quads are par for the course until you adapt to the eccentric work. If you squat three days per week, you’ll stop getting really really sore, even as the weight on the bar continues to increase, because adaptation to the eccentric component is taking place. An experienced lifter working through a program of increasing weight will not experience acute soreness unless some aspect of the squat program changes, i.e. he goes from sets of five reps to sets of 10, thus increasing the eccentric volume.

It doesn’t matter how heavy or light the weight is — if there is enough eccentric volume in the workout to which you are not adapted, you will get sore. This is why 100 bodyweight-only squats (“air” squats) will make you exquisitely sore, and if you do them infrequently enough that you do not adapt to the work, they will make you exquisitely sore every time you do them. In fact, since they weigh essentially nothing, they’re not heavy enough to make you stronger, but the 100 negatives will make you sore enough that you can’t walk correctly for several days. Done twice a week, you’ll stop getting sore, thank God, but you’ll still not get any stronger because you’re not lifting progressively heavier weight.

Here’s the problem: the soreness doesn’t make you stronger. Soreness just makes you hurt. Lifting heavier weights makes you stronger, because that is what stronger means: the ability to produce more force. Soreness is merely a side effect of the process of using exercises that have an eccentric component. And if those exercises do not involve progressively increasing force production — lifting increasingly heavier weights — then they cannot make you stronger, even if they make you so sore you can’t walk.

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Air Squat

High-rep bodyweight squats make you very sore.

Many people who have become involved in the recent extreme fitness movement’s popularity have grown accustomed to being sore all the time. The workouts are often done in a random fashion, which prevents the adaptation that would be necessary to prevent the soreness. But the workouts are perceived as “fun” and productive, because they are done in a group of (usually) friends, and since the workouts make you sore, the soreness comes to be perceived as a positive thing, too — proof of your commitment, your courage, your membership in The Community, and your willingness to do what it takes to get the job done. Soreness therefore becomes the point itself, the Good at the end of the effort.

It’s not. Not at all. Soreness is muscular inflammation, and inflammation has effects beyond just the inflamed tissue itself. DOMS across a large muscle mass is systemic inflammation. Like rheumatoid arthritis, it is a maladaptive stress on all the regulatory mechanisms of the body. It can cause cardiac symptoms, sleep apnea, hypertension, vascular disease, respiratory inflammation and bronchitis, and all kinds of unpleasantness. Occasional soreness is a normal part of training, but chronic systemic inflammation for weeks, months, or years on end is a very bad thing for your health, essentially the same thing as a disease. Our biology is not designed to function under these circumstances, and it cannot adapt to chronic soreness any more than it can adapt to starvation. You may get away with it for a while, especially if you’re younger, but it takes a toll.

If you have been operating under the assumption that soreness means progress, re-evaluate your assumptions. Improved performance means progress, and while soreness is an occasional necessary evil, it should never be the objective.

****

images via Thomas Campitelli, The Aasgaard Company /  shutterstock / Artem Furman /  maradonna 8888 / videodoctor /  Click Images / Piotr Marcinski

Mark Rippetoe is the author of Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, Practical Programming for Strength Training, Strong Enough?, Mean Ol' Mr. Gravity, and numerous journal, magazine and internet articles. Rip was a competitive powerlifter for ten years, has coached many lifters and athletes, and has given seminars to thousands around the country.

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All Comments   (51)
All Comments   (51)
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I wish the military understood this. Right now, they think that if you aren't utterly exhausted and sore, it wasn't a good workout. Not to mention the fact that the vast majority of service members I've seen can't even squat properly. It's a truly sad state of affairs.
20 weeks ago
20 weeks ago Link To Comment
I used to train using the High Intensity Training methods described in the book Body By Science. This basically involves doing a single set to failure, with very slow concentric and eccentric contractions. You are supposed to put equal emphasis on the concentric and eccentric, and ideally reach failure on the last slow negative, which you are supposed to resistance against with all the effort you can muster. This approach fatigues the muscle very quickly, and also (for me) produced considerable DOMS for several days afterward. Although the people who promote the system seem to understand that there isn't a reliable correlation between degree of DOMS and the effectiveness of the stimulus, that isn't how many practitioners behave. Many come to relish the soreness as proof of the effectiveness of the workout. The near immediate feedback in the form of sore muscles the next day can become addictive (in a weird way).

When I switched to multiple set, not to failure training, the first thing I noticed was much less DOMS, and faster recovery from the workout. It took a little longer to see that the multiple set approach was also giving me better results in terms of strength and muscle mass.

The only time I get really sore now is when I return to training from an extended layoff. I do not miss the DOMS at all.
25 weeks ago
25 weeks ago Link To Comment
Mark,

I swim 3 days/wk to improve my pulmonary function (I have a complicated pulmonary disease which responds favorably to this exercise). I'd like to begin barbell training to improve my overall strength. How would you integrate these two regimens? Alternate days? In series, same day? Thank you.
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
Depends on your age, sex, detailed medical history, and exercise history. I can't make specific exercise prescription recommendations in the absence of the necessary information. Sorry.
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yep, just started SS, was really sore after 1st session. Fought through the second, felt fine since. Adapting well for almost 55.
Started at 6 ft 200 lbs.
After 2 weeks, 6 work outs:
Squat 115 to 165
press 65 to 85 3 sessions
bench 100 to 120 3 sessions
dead 145 to 205 Could have gone more, session 6 was the "easiest" dead workout yet!

If you follow the book, obey the technique, this really seems to work.

Hey Mark, as I am older and have a bit on the gut I have went light on the milk (gallon every 3 days). Probably added 4 lbs to date. Do I need the milk? Since my strength gains to date follow guidelines for young guys I must be "doing the program". Can't wait for week 3!

In His grip,

Dennis
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
As I have stated about 378 times in various places, but which statements people are content to constantly ignore, that the recommendation to drink a gallon of milk a day is directed ONLY AT UNDERWEIGHT YOUNG MEN WHO NEED TO GAIN WEIGHT.

Let me repeat: THE RECOMMENDATION TO DRINK A GALLON OF MILK A DAY IS DIRECTED ONLY AT YOUNG MEN WHO NEED TO GAIN WEIGHT.

I know its fun to criticize my "bizarre diet recommendations" having paid no attention to what they actually are, but it is incorrect to do so.
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thanks Mark. I went lighter (gal/3 days) as I knew the whole thing would be excess.
Sounds like for a 55 year old drop the milk?
Very happy with the first two weeks, numbers are in line with your expectations for younger guys so the body is responding.
Working on technique and plan to add the PClean this week on Wed.
I can't wait to see how this feel on he ski slopes. Usually the first few weeks are jello legs. The eccentric work from the squat will really help.

Probably pick up PPST soon.

Dennis
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
Now THIS is amazing.... an avid road cyclist, I decided a couple weeks back to begin putting miles on a fixed gear bike.. one speed, no "freewheeling" (the pedals turn whenever the bike moves). When you want to slow down or stop, push down on the pedal as it comes UP from the bottom. This seems equivalent to the eccentric work described in the article. Took a fairly long ride (35 miles) through some hills the weekend.... slow cadence (maybe 25-30 RPM at the pedals) going up, faster on the descents )up to maybe 150 or so), and using legs to keep from spinning out of control on the descents. Also, on powerful stops, upper body and spinals are heavily involved, trying to transfer some of the power through the torso to the drops. I was REALLY sore the next day.... and the next...... and the next.... not normal. Now I understand why..... putting energy into those legs as they are being compressed is the eccentric exercise you mention. And it HURTS. Not used to it. It persists far longer than the normal "I pushed hard and am sore" type of soreness, and is of a different type.

And here I had thought riding the fixie only forced me to operate outside my normal cadence range, and exhert effort when slowing as well as accelerating. I've done a few thuosand miles on the road with the fixie in the past, but had to be off the bike entirely for a few years, and am now reclaiming what I can of my former speed and endurance. Had gotten into a "black hole", same cadence range and same output level no matter the terrain, by using the gears on the road bike. Figured the fixie would blast me out of that rut... it does. But those unexpected, unintended consequences.. oh my.
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
I remember fixed gear training. Downhill's could get really scary.

Take care.

Dennis
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
I coach high school girls’ basketball and am looking for a solid, foundational program for the girls to work on three days a week preseason and during the season. Once the season begins I can’t spend too much practice time on it, but know I must allocate some. As I was looking at your books on Amazon, I was wondering if Practical Programming for Strength Training would be the one for me to use in developing this. Also, what do you think of planking, pushups (I have the girls keep their elbows by their sides), and pullups?

One of my players just enrolled in a speed and agility class, and she has been very sore because of the air squats they are doing. What purpose do they serve other than making her sore?? From what I just read, they are a waste of time and can be damaging.

Do you have archived articles that could help me?

Thanks!

26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
Get Marks books Starting Strength 3rd Edition and Practical Programming 3rd Edition it will answer all your questions.





26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
Great stuff.

Thank you.
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
I have a specific issue: two, actually. Torn meniscus in my left knee, with a big Baker's cyst. Second, I have patellar-femoral arthritis, so my kneecaps scrape the ends of my tibias.

I've seen two knee specialists in NYC. One said "no more stairs, or you're looking at a knee replacement." (I'm 58.) He also told me I can never do breaststroke again, or swim laps. The other knee doc said "go ahead and do your usual exercises, but let pain be your guide." Both are hotshot pro sports teams doctors.

Do you know of a quad exercise I can do? Squats are excruciating because of the arthritis, and so is the weight machine where you lift your feet. But there has to be SOME way of strengthening my quads. Thanks in advance for any advice.
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
My usual advice in this situation is to get the knee replaced. Your ability to stay active and healthy is being compromised by this, so get it fixed. The surgery itself is a secondary consideration -- it is no longer experimental.
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
Mark, I've enjoyed your articles immensely but I have two questions.

When do you stop trying to increase performance?

In the past I have used a combination of traditional weight training and Matrix system. I have found the matrix particularly useful if I become stuck at a certain wt. Sounds like your telling me its all in my head?
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
Stop trying to increase performance after you're dead. I have no idea what the "matrix" system is.
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
Rip- Besides just riding more hills, is there specific weight-lifting drills I can do that will improve my hill climbing ability? I can out sprint everyone on the team, and can leg press a ton, but constantly get dropped on the hills.
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'd bet biog money on the premise your fit on the bike is not correct. If you can outsprint everyone else on the team, you are not lacking power. When hill climbing, the position is more critical. Also, a skilled road cyclist will shift position in the saddle when seriously climbing to better use the power available. Perhaps your bike allows a decent position for road sprints but will not allow you to make the proper shift for serious climbing. Get and watch some of the archived footage of the hill climb stages on the Tour de france.... watching those with a skilled bike fitter and asking some pointed questions of him revealed to me their secret for climbing. It DOES take a position change, and the bike has to be set up to allow this for YOU. Few road bikes properly fit their riders. Perhaps ten percent or less are even within acceptible range of proper.
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
Hill climbing isn't going to benefit from weight lifting drills; it will benefit from your getting stronger.

Everyone can leg press a ton; it is a masturbatory exercise the purpose of which is not strength development but telling ones' friends what large numbers they pushed.

Add a hundred pounds to your squat and deadlift and see where your climbs are then.
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
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