Most people think that sore muscles after a workout are a sign that you’ve stimulated muscle growth, and that more soreness equals faster muscle growth.
But are the two really linked?
What does muscle soreness have to do with muscle growth?
Can you still build muscle without getting sore?
The truth is that while sore muscles might make you feel good, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your workout has been effective at stimulating muscle growth.
Running downhill, for example, is one of the best ways to create both muscle damage and muscle soreness. But this type of training isn’t going to make your muscles substantially bigger.
What causes sore muscles after a workout?
Well, it has nothing to do with lactic acid or lactate. In fact, most of the lactate is gone from your muscles soon after exercise.
A tough workout, or even just a single exercise that you haven’t done before, leads to a bout of inflammation — the same defense mechanism that causes swelling and pain if you cut your finger.
Inflammation is the way that your body handles an injury. And as part of the repair and recovery process, your body ramps up the production of immune cells.
These cells then produce substances that make certain nerve endings in your body more sensitive. When you move, these nerves send signals to the brain, which then creates the perception of soreness. In fact, pain appears to be an output constructed by the brain as opposed to an input to the brain as was once believed.
What’s more, some research shows that the source of the pain is the connective tissue that helps to bind muscle fibers together, rather than the actual muscle fibers themselves.
A lot of people like to use muscle soreness as a marker of recovery, and assume that when the soreness goes away, the damage has been repaired and the muscle has recovered.
However, muscle soreness is not generally a good indicator of exercise-induced damage. And a lack of muscle soreness doesn’t tell you whether or not all the damage has been repaired.
In addition, while some signs of muscle damage can clear within a week, damage to your nervous system (the “chain of command” that transmits signals from the brain to the muscle) can last for 10 days or more.
Certain exercises also seem to cause more muscle soreness after others.
Exercises that involve some kind of pre-stretch are far more likely to make you sore than other exercises for the same muscle groups.
For example, I always feel sore the day after doing pullovers, dumbbell flyes, Romanian deadlifts or Bulgarian split squats even though I’ve been doing some of these exercises for years.
In his excellent review of the subject, New Zealand personal trainer and coach Matt Perryman points out that many of the assumptions regarding soreness and growth are just plain wrong.
“There’s no link between muscle soreness and protein synthesis; no link between muscle soreness and long-term growth; and no link between muscle soreness and muscle fiber damage.”
“Muscle soreness happens when you create enough total damage to aggravate the connective tissues,” he adds. “This will sometimes correlate with a muscle-stimulating, growth-inducing workout. But just as often, it has nothing to do with muscle stimulation.”
Muscle soreness is nothing more than a sign that you did something your body wasn’t used to, or performed an exercise that just so happens to trigger more soreness than others.
In other words, the fact that you’re not sore doesn’t mean your muscles aren’t growing. Likewise, sore muscles don’t necessarily translate into faster growth.
“Being sore, stiff, and exhausted might feel good,” Perryman concludes. “But it’s not a replacement for training intelligently.”
Will stretching help to get rid of muscle soreness?
To prevent muscle soreness, you’ve probably been told to stretch immediately after exercise. But there’s very little evidence to show that it makes any difference whatsoever.
A team of Danish researchers, for example, found that stretching before and after exercise had no measurable effect on muscle soreness.
Publishing their findings in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, the researchers persuaded seven healthy women to take part in two experiments.
During the first experiment, the women exercised their right quadriceps (the group of muscles in the front of your thigh) to exhaustion. Ratings of muscle pain were taken for the next seven days.
In experiment two, the women performed the same type of exercise. This time, however, they spent 90 seconds stretching before and after exercise. Again, muscle pain was assessed for seven days.
Contrary to popular belief, the results showed that stretching had no effect on muscle soreness, which reached a peak two days after exercise.
This isn’t the only study to highlight the fact that stretching doesn’t seem to do much as far as muscle soreness is concerned.
When a group of New Zealand researchers reviewed several muscle soreness studies, they found that stretching after exercise led to an average reduction in post-exercise soreness of just 2% — an effect that’s likely to be of “no practical significance” for most people.
If you enjoyed this post, there’s a good chance you’ll also like Truth and Lies about Building Muscle: 10 Muscle Myths Debunked By Science.
It's a FREE 20-page special report (PDF) I put together to debunk 10 popular myths that are still widely believed, despite all the evidence to the contrary. You can download a copy here.
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About Christian FinnChristian Finn holds a master's degree in exercise science, is a certified personal trainer and has been featured on BBC TV and radio, as well as in Men's Health, Men's Fitness, Fit Pro, Zest, and Perfect Body magazine. You can contact Christian using Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or via e-mail.