The mantra “no pain, no gain” has long been present in the world of fitness. This misconception is quite commonly translated to mean if you’re not super sore the day after a workout, then you won’t see any long-term results.
But just as the quality of your workout should not be measured based solely on how much (or how little) you sweat, so too should you resist the urge to equate the effectiveness of your exercise session with your level of post-workout muscle soreness. In other words, don’t be so quick to write off your latest workout as lame and a waste of time just because it didn’t leave you so sore that you’re unable to straighten your arms the next day. The fact is, while some muscle soreness can be normal—and even motivating for some—to date, there is a lack of scientific evidence effectively demonstrating that excessive soreness translates to better results.
What research does show, however, is that progressively overloading the body leads to improved fitness. We must apply a greater challenge and new stimulus to the body—in the form of manipulating variables such as volume, intensity, or mode of activity. But we also must do so in a gradual fashion, as quicker results don’t come from overdoing it on exercise. In fact, excessively exercising to the point of repeated extreme muscle soreness often leads to overtraining and overuse injuries, which can negatively impact your ability to reach your fitness goals. If you’re finding you’re spending more days recovering from extreme muscle soreness than actually exercising, that’s a telltale sign that you should modify your workout program using a safer, more effective approach.
As opposed to making muscle soreness the objective of your workout or the indicator of a job well done, focus instead on the plethora of positive long-term benefits that exercise provides—increased energy, improved strength, and enhanced functional capabilities. If you’re effectively challenging yourself each workout, enjoying your exercise experiences, seeing over time that the number of repetitions you can do and the weight that you’re lifting is increasing, and you’re able to do more activities you love—like hike, bike, and run—with greater ease, than rest assured your approach to exercise is on the right track.