Good and bad soreness: How to know the difference

Soreness is somewhat of a vague term, but an important one to understand if you’re to get the most of out of your workouts and build resilient, sturdy joints.

Soreness isn’t necessarily indicative of an effective workout. It can be a byproduct of one. However, just because you are sore, doesn’t mean your workout actually did anything productive.

I could have anybody, regardless of fitness level, do jump squats for an hour and I guarantee they’d be sore the next day.

Did they build any muscle, strength, power, or flexibility? Did they burn enough calories to justify such a unnecessarily nonjoint-friendly workout? Maybe, but even so they could have gotten more out of that workout by chasing progress rather than soreness or feeling like their workout “kicked their ass”.

Muscle soreness is largely believed to be a result of muscle damage -- teeny tiny little tears in the muscle fibers. However, soreness can also be caused by a new stimulus, something your body isn’t used to. This is why after taking some time off from working out, your first workout back always leaves you weeping in bed for hours, even if that workout was fairly light compared with what you’re used to.

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Read: more soreness doesn’t equal more better. It’s complicated.

Muscle damage is one 3 key mechanisms for hypertrophy. Hypertrophy= fancy pants way of saying muscle growth. The other two mechanisms being mechanical tension, and metabolic stress. I can already hear you starting to snore, so we’ll skim over those for now. Basically it’s like this:

  • Muscle Damage: Tiny tears in the muscle fibers often causing soreness.
  • Mechanical Tension: Heavy/Low Rep lifts where you have to exert lots of force/tension just to get 1 or 2 reps in.
  • Metabolic Stress: The pump that comes from doing lots of reps and focusing on the mind/muscle connection.

Side note: Have a good balance of these 3 mechanisms and you have a solid muscle mass or muscle tone program, depending on your diet.

Point being muscle soreness can lead to results. You don’t want to avoid it entirely. However, using soreness as the sole indicator of an effective workout can lead you to do a lot of stupid shit, like doing jump squats for an hour.

Beyond that, the body changes during recovery, not during your workout. So if you’re debilitatingly sore all of the time, you’re probably not recovering enough to maximize gains. You might be pushing too hard. Or, you may have too much randomness in your workouts, such that you don’t stick with anything long enough to get better at it.

Now, as I said, muscle soreness isn’t a bad thing. You should be sore from time to time, otherwise you’re probably not pushing it enough.

What we’ve been calling “muscle soreness” is more specifically called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS. This is the “good” kind of soreness, the kind that means you’re muscles have just been worked in a way that causes muscle damage.

But what about other kinds of soreness? The bad kind, the kind that means you did something wrong, and/or strained something. Maybe your technique wasn’t so good, weight was too heavy, too much intensity too soon, etc.

Admittedly this a tricky topic because bad soreness can vary greatly depending on what’s actually going on with your body. A big part of this equation just comes down to experience, the longer you’ve been exercising and paying attention to the signals your body is giving you the easier it becomes to distinguish between good soreness and bad soreness.

In this post I hope to give you some general guidelines to help speed up the process of being in tune with your body and knowing how hard to push a given workout for the best results.

The goal of an exercise is to stress the muscles maximally while minimally stressing the joints

The joints will get stronger as a byproduct of intelligent strength training, but you shouldn’t be feeling your joints ache more than your muscles in the days following your workout.

Part of this puzzle is revealed in the technical name of muscle soreness: Delayed onset muscle soreness.

Good soreness tends to happen at least the day after your workout but sometimes 72 hours after, which is the worst. “Ugh, whaaaaat, I didn’t even workout yesterday. Whyyyyyyyyy?”

So if your muscles feel sore and achey immediately after or during a workout, that’s probably a sign you pushed it a bit too hard for that training session. Doesn’t mean you’re on your way to an injury, just go a bit easier next workout.

In general, the good kind of soreness will feel like a dull ache in the muscle belly, a dull ache that becomes more intense when using that muscle. It’ll feel unpleasant but shouldn’t be a sharp pain or pulling sensation. Furthermore it should alleviate each day, unless you work that muscle really hard again of course.

If you feel more ache in the joint itself than the muscle then your body is telling you to change something. So if your knees hurt more after squats than your thighs or booty that’s a signal to alter something with your squats.

This means it’s important to know what muscles you’re targeting with an exercise.

Sticking with squats, if when squatting you feel more muscles working in your low back than your legs and bum, that’s not great. In a perfect squat, the low back does get worked, but as a stabiliser, rather than a mover. This means the muscle gets worked but not in such a way that causes a “pump” or “burn”. So knowing which muscles are meant to be moving the weight is important in judging whether or not soreness is productive.

In this case, the back soreness might feel like the “good” muscle soreness. The caveat being the squat isn’t meant to cause that sort of soreness in the low back because of the mechanics of the exercise.

What to do if you feel the bad soreness?

Now, just because you’re feeling some minor aches and pains in the wrong places after your workout doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. It doesn’t mean you now have an injury to deal with.

What it does mean is you should listen to that feedback because you don’t want to exacerbate those minor aches and pains (which are a normal part of strength training from time to time) to the point where they do turn into an injury.

What I’m getting at is you’re not a delicate flower.

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Just because you feel some aches doesn’t mean you need put yourself in a bubble and never look at a weight again. The body is resilient and this is all part of how you learn to strength train properly. When learning to ride a bike, you’ll scrape your knees a few times. Not exactly fun, but it doesn’t mean the sky is falling either.

That said, these aches are your body trying to communicate with you. You ought to listen.

Meaning you shouldn’t stop exercising entirely. You also shouldn’t ignore those signals and push through the pain, even if what you’re doing is exacerbating the issue. The answer is somewhere in the middle.

The first step is to not make the problem worse. Work around it.

Experiment with whatever exercise caused the problem and see if there is any way to alter your technique such that it doesn’t make the joint soreness worse. Lighten up the load a bit, take some weight off the bar, dumbbell, etc. because that could very well solve the problem. You could just have went too heavy too soon.

Also, slooooooow down when you’re performing the exercise. It’s hard to listen to your body when you’re racing through your workout. Try taking 3-4 seconds to complete the descent phase of an exercise. So if you’re doing the bench press, it should take 4 Mississippi’s to lower the bar to your chest. Add a 2 second pause at the bottom if you’re feeling sadistic.

Note: you will need to significantly lighten the weight to use this technique. Don’t get stuck under a bar, it’s dangerous, embarrassing and is completely avoidable if you leave your ego at the door.

If none of this works, simply ditch the exercise until the pain goes away. Find a different exercise, ideally one that works similar muscle groups. For example, if back squats are hard on your low back, switch to goblet squats or split squats.

Once the pain goes away go back to the original exercise and repeating the same process of experimenting, paying tons of attention to your movement and how your body responds to it. Again, go light. You want to discover if that exercise was simply a bad fit for your body or if there was something you did that caused the problem.

I recommend leaning your phone on a dumbbell and filming yourself lift from the side and front view to check your form. Often times this makes the issue pretty obvious. Not always of course, but it’s worth trying. Plus, it helps my online clients develop body awareness so I’m confident it will help you too.

The key is to pump the brakes a bit and figure out what caused the problem in the first place. Here are the main areas to put your attention:

  • Intensity: Too heavy
  • Volume: Not too heavy, just too much. Too many reps, too many sets, not enough rest in between sets etc.
  • Technique: Is your form on point?
  • Exercise selection: Is there an exercise that would be a better fit? If, no matter what, the exercise causes you problems, swap it out for a different variation.

To recap:

  • Being sore doesn’t mean you had a good workout.
  • Good soreness is caused by muscle damage, which can help your muscles grow given enough recovery time..
  • The goal of an exercise to is to stress the muscle with minimal stress on the joints.
  • Bad soreness can be caused by way too many things and can feel different. There’s no one kind of “I made a mistake” soreness. *Among things that can cause bad soreness: Pushing a muscle/joint too hard, poor technique, taking an exercise through too much range of motion for your current level of flexibility, improper exercise selection.
  • Good soreness is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) and will kick in anywhere from 24 hours to 72 after a DOMS inducing workout.
  • You’re not made of egg shells. Listen to your body’s signals, but not the point of obsessiveness or hypochondria.
  • If you encounter the bad soreness, keep working out. Lighten the weight and double down on mastering proper exercise technique.
  • If that exacerbates the ache, find an exercise that doesn’t, still slowing down and focusing on good technique.

Now, if you’re still not sure what you’re doing wrong click here and join my Online Fat Loss Coaching Program and we’ll get you lifting pain free in no time, because you can’t push yourself hard enough to get results if you’re always getting hurt.


Oh, and don't forget to grab a free copy of "Insanity Free Fat Loss: 10 Secrets for Long Term Success" to burn body fat (and keep it off) without dieting or obsessing about your health.

Posted on May 15, 2018