Many of you are probably familiar with that feeling of muscle stiffness and soreness that can kick in anywhere from 12 to 48 hours after your workout. It’s referred to as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or “DOMS” and is loved by many as a sign of a kick-ass workout the day before. But is it really a reliable sign of an effective session? If you’re not sore the next day, does it mean you didn’t work hard enough? In short, the answer is no.
Not all exercises will result in delayed onset muscle soreness the next day. It’s more likely to occur after you put your body through a workout that it’s unaccustomed to. This could mean that you’ve added in an exercise that is either brand new or that you haven’t done for a while. It might also be caused by lifting a heavier weight, increasing the number of sets and reps you do or decreasing your rest time between sets.
Another common cause of delayed onset muscle soreness is performing exercises in a way that places greater emphasis on the eccentric or “muscle lengthening” part of the movement. Take the standing barbell bicep curl as an example. The eccentric phase of the movement occurs as you lower the barbell as this is when your bicep is relaxing or lengthening after being contracted. Powering through a set of ten barbell bicep curls might not cause any pain the next day. But moving very slowly as your lower the barbell might make simple tasks (like picking up your cup of coffee) very difficult the next morning.
Whether your goal is to tone, increase strength or stimulate muscle growth, it is possible to make progress without always feeling sore the day after every workout. On the other hand, going a several weeks without soreness at all might be a sign that you need to shake up your routine. Your body is extremely good at adapting to what you throw at it and if you continuously do the same workout, you will stop seeing results. You need to keep challenging your muscles in order to grow fitter, stronger, bigger and better.
So, if delayed onset muscle soreness is not a reliable way of telling if your workout is effective, then another question arises. How do you tell if you are working hard enough in the gym? The simplest way is to track your progress. If your goal is to increase strength, are you lifting heavier weights then when you started? If your goal is toning or muscle growth, are you starting to see muscle? If your goal is fat loss, are you starting to lose fat? If you’ve been training consistently for several weeks and are still not seeing results (keeping in mind that it takes time to see changes), then you should start reassessing your workouts.