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Is Muscle Soreness Required for Muscle Growth?

Craig Leonard December 30, 2015
Muscle Soreness and Growth

The level of soreness experienced the day or two following a training session is a common measure used by individuals to determine how effective said session was at breaking down their muscles and setting them up for growth.

But is there really a correlation between how sore a workout makes us feel and the potential it yields for muscle gains? And, if there is, wouldn’t this mean that any resistance training we engage in that doesn’t leave us feeling it afterward would be completely useless for increasing muscle mass?

Today I’m going to tackle these age-old questions using science and the collective experience of millions of fellow weight lifters.

Let’s start with the fundamentals.

It’s basic muscle building science that stressing a muscle beyond its current adaptive limits is a prerequisite for adding muscle mass to the body.

The soreness that’s experienced after training, known as delayed onset muscle soreness (or DOMS), is a result of this excessive stress that results in microscopic tears being inflicted on the affected muscle fibers.

Therefore, we can logically infer that inducing muscle damage through resistance training – along with its corresponding feeling of soreness – does in fact promote the development of additional muscle tissue.

When we induce tearing within our muscle fibers it causes a disruption in the ultrastructure of the impacted fibers. This ultrastructure disruption activates muscle satellite cells. Satellite cells can be thought of as muscle stem cells, which, when stimulated, fuse to the associated muscle fiber and donate nuclei that increase muscle protein synthesis.

Muscle protein synthesis is the physiological process by which amino acids are used within the body for the purposes of repairing damaged muscle fibers and building additional muscle tissue.

The activation of satellite cells also results in the expression of muscle growth factors that aid in the repair and regeneration of muscle tissue, further enhancing development.

Since soreness is indicative of muscle damage, it’s generally a sign that you’ve disrupted the ultrastructure of the targeted muscle fibers, activated satellite cells, and set the stage for muscle growth. 1

I say it’s generally a sign because soreness can also be a consequence of injuries sustained while training. Obviously, soreness due to injury isn’t something that’s going to be helpful for anybody’s muscle gaining aspirations.

It’s also worth noting that while muscle soreness is absolutely correlated with the fiber damage required for growth to occur, it doesn’t necessarily follow that greater soreness leads to greater anabolism. There’s a point at which your muscles can become too sore, leaving them unable to fully recover between periods of direct stimulation, hindering growth, and putting a damper on your ability to train with maximal intensity.

Still, if your muscles are aching as a result of training, and not from injury, you can rest assured that you’ve adequately stimulated them to advocate the development of additional muscle mass.

At this point, I must draw attention to the fact that things are a little more complicated than simply using the presence of sore muscles to gauge the muscle building effectiveness of a particular workout.

We’ve positively affirmed the correlation between training induced muscle soreness and the potential for muscle growth. But we also need to examine whether or not it’s possible for the muscles of the body to be trained in such a way that they’re primed for growth without an accompanying feeling of soreness.

This question can be intuitively answered by anyone who’s consistently trained their body for longer than a few months.

The collective experience of countless well-trained men and women is clear that muscle growth can and does occur in the absence of muscle soreness.

As we consistently train our muscles, various physiological adaptations take place within the body that gradually reduce the intensity of discomfort experienced from delayed onset muscle soreness. In certain individuals this adaptation can be so pronounced that even a marked spike in training volume may not induce a significant degree of soreness.

When this is experienced many individuals are fooled into falsely believing this to be an indication that their training has become unproductive or useless. But this is by no means an indication that the muscle fiber damage required for growth is no longer taking place.

It’s only an indication that the body has become increasingly resistant to the physiological consequences that would otherwise cause the damaged muscles to feel sore.

This phenomenon is precisely why some of the world’s most impressive athletes, natural bodybuilders, and strongman competitors continue to build extraordinary amounts of muscle while rarely experiencing training induced muscle soreness.

To summarize, sore muscles after resistance training is a positive sign that the targeted muscle fibers have been sufficiently “damaged” to promote growth through muscle protein synthesis during the process of recovery.

In that regard, we should be encouraged whenever our training causes our muscles to ache for a day or two afterward (as long as the aching isn’t due to injury, and isn’t so substantial that it keeps us out of the gym, or hinders our ability to train with high intensity).

On the other hand, after engaging in intense resistance training regularly for several months the body may well adapt to the rigors of training such that muscle soreness becomes a rarity.

We must not mistake this as being detrimental to our continued muscle gaining progress. It’s simply an indication that the body has adapted and become much more efficient at staving off the set of physiological reactions that result in muscle soreness.

Though it may seem counter-intuitive, it’s evident that muscle soreness is an unreliable means of gauging the muscle building effectiveness of your training.

Since we all should be concerned with having a sexy amount of muscle (here’s why), you may be inclined to wonder at this point if there’s another surefire way to determine whether our training is having the desired muscle gaining impact.

It turns out that there is a set of tried and true training principles that are the only known path to achieving one’s full muscle and strength gaining potential. I’ve written about these principles in detail within the following past posting: The Best Way To Build Muscle.

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