There is a belief amongst gym-goers that if you aren't feeling stiff the next day then you obviously weren't working hard enough.
A go hard or go home approach that has led to endless “day after leg day” jokes and comments.
But is this true? Does muscle soreness mean that your muscles are growing? And does a lack of soreness mean that they are not.
This article will look into whether this is the case.
Muscle Fatigue vs Muscle Soreness
The first thing we need to establish is the difference between muscle fatigue and muscle soreness.
If you've ever completed a reps-to-exhaustion set (for example a triple drop set) you will probably have felt a dull ache in the muscles that you worked, towards the end of the set (this is metabolic stress which will be mentioned later).
After a minute or two of rest this will lessen but after a heavy workout you might have felt tired for a while afterwards, this is muscle fatigue. It can be aided by foam rolling , and shouldn't last for longer than an hour or two.
Muscle soreness, commonly known as DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) is the pain you feel the next morning when you get out of bed, or in some cases two days after the workout. The soreness is delayed and can be pretty debilitating, if your legs are experiencing DOMS you might find it hard to walk, sit, lie down, etc …
Studies have shown that no amount of foam rolling will make any difference to DOMS, and that the best healer is time.
How do your muscles grow?
Exercising leads to muscle fibre damage. After training is complete the muscle fibres need protein to engage in a process called muscle-protein synthesis.
During muscle-protein synthesis proteins are used to repair the micro tears in the muscle fibre, which can increase the fibres in both number and cross-sectional size. This leads to an increase in the muscle size known as Hypertrophy.
Muscle damage and delayed onset muscle soreness share a relationship but whether that is a causal relationship or a coincidental relationship remains to be seen.
What is DOMS?
Delayed onset muscle soreness is essentially inflammation of the muscles, it is going to hurt and cause stiffness.
People experience DOMS most frequently when they begin training as this is where they are making the most impact on their muscles, putting them through more stress than at any point in their training.
The go home point here is that being on the receiving end of delayed onset muscle soreness does not necessarily mean that you have worked sufficiently hard enough to promote growth. This is because both DOMS and muscle damage can occur independently of each other .
Why it doesn't matter?
You might have noticed that the more you train the less your life is afflicted by DOMS, some people incorrectly believe that this is because they are now not training as hard as they were.
Whilst this may be true, it should not be based on pain after a workout. Your muscles will grow in response to three mechanisms :
- Mechanical Tension
- Metabolic Stress
- Muscle Damage
Is a measure of how much tension is put on the muscles during an exercise. The heavier the weight, the more mechanical tension. Meaning greater muscle growth.
When your muscles contract blood will begin to pool in the muscles and your oxygen supply will begin to empty. Once you have performed enough reps, this will begin to make your muscles hurt (if you haven't felt this before then your training might not be up to scratch!).
Mentioned earlier, this is micro-tears forming in the muscle as a result of muscle contractions under a load (weight). Repairing these muscles causes growth. This is not DOMS but is often associated with it.
DOMS vs Progressive Overload
So long as you are consistently pushing yourself in the gym, whilst making sure that your protein levels are high and you are resting sufficiently to recover your muscles will grow.
So don't worry about the lack of DOMS, embrace it.
DOMS is essentially a problem, when your muscles are so stiff that you can't train properly (or even at all) then you are missing an opportunity to put them through the above 3 mechanisms.
Progressive overload is the number one cause of strength and size adaptations, once your muscles get used to a certain weight you need to increase that weight to promote growth.
You can also promote growth by increasing the reps of an exercise, so if you have been bench pressing 90kg for 6 reps and then start pressing 90kg for 7 reps you will overload the muscles.
 Healey, K., Dorfman, L., Riebe, D., Blanpied, P., Hatfield, D. 2011. The Effects of Foam Rolling on Myofascial Release and Performance. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 25: S1-S122,S1-95
 Healey, K., Hatfield, D., Blanpied, P., Dorfman, L., Riebe, D. 2014. The effects of myofascial release with foam rolling on performance. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 28(1): 61-8
 Lininger, H., Schlegel, A., Harwell, L., Paulson, A., Braun, S., Sanders, W., Shippensburg, J. 2013. The Effects of Foam Rolling and Static Stretching on Flexibility and Acute Muscle Soreness. International Journal of Exercise Science: Conference Proceedings: 9(1): Article 33.
 Schoenfeld, B., Contreras, B. 2013. Is Postexercise Muscle Soreness a Valid Indicator of Muscular Adaptations? National Strength & Conditioning Association 35(5): 16-21
 Schoenfeld, B. 2010. The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and their Application to Resistance Training. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 24(10): 2857-2872