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Here’s Why You’re Not Sore After a Workout

Dec 08, 2023

If you’ve recently started in the gym, or returned after a long layoff, you probably know all too well the crippling soreness that comes after that first session.

And if you’ve been getting into the gym consistently since, you’ve probably also noticed that your soreness has decreased.

So why is that? And do you need to be sore after a workout to make progress?

The muscle soreness you feel after a workout is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS.

There are probably a few factors that contribute to DOMS.

The most common explanations are doing something new (hence why you get so sore when you start going to the gym, or try a new exercise), and eccentric-focused training — the part of a movement where your muscle is stretched under load.

This would explain why deep squats, which are hardest when the glutes are lengthened, can leave you struggling to walk, whereas exercises that bias a shortened glute, like the hip thrust, might leave you with little discomfort afterwards.

Other causes of DOMS might include taking an exercise close to failure, doing more sets, and having a bigger range of motion.

DOMS is thought to be caused by muscle damage and inflammation, both of which contribute to, or are at least byproducts of, muscle growth.

But that’s not to say that the correlation between DOMS and muscle growth is strong.

Think about it.

You might get sore after a long run.

But we know that running doesn’t cause muscle growth. Otherwise, Kipchoge would be jacked.

But funnily enough, most of the factors that contribute to DOMS have also been shown to improve muscle growth.

Switching up your training (when necessary)? Check.

Stretching a muscle under load? Check.

Getting closer to failure. Doing more sets. Bigger ranges of motion. Check, check, check.

So, while the soreness itself might not cause growth, it can certainly be used as a good proxy to know you’re working hard enough to make progress.

So, you don’t need to be sore after a workout to make progress.

If you’re making progress but not getting sore, there’s probably no need to change anything.

There’s a chance that you’d see better results if you took some of your sets closer to failure, or increased the number of sets you do.

But if you’re happy with your progress for the amount of time and effort you’re putting in, then that’s what matters.

But if you’re not sore and not making progress, then something needs to change.

In my experience, there are 3 common explanations.

1. Technique

If you’re not sore in the muscles that you’re meant to be working, making sure your technique is on point should be the first port of call.

That way, you can potentially fix your problem without having to add in any extra work.

Improving technique can be a bit of a minefield. There’s so much contradicting advice.

That’s why I recommend finding a reputable coach you trust and working with them.

This is the fast track to not just better technique, but better results in general.

If that’s not possible, do some research online.

But skip the Reddit boards.

Instead, find a source you can trust.

I recommend this excellent video series from Renaissance Periodization, which breaks down technique mistakes for some common exercises.

Finally, remember that good technique requires practice.

Lifting is a skill, and like any skill, you’ll get better at it the more you do it.

 

2. Proximity to Failure

Assuming your technique is good, the next best explanation for your lack of soreness is proximity to failure — or lack thereof.

In other words, you’re not taking your sets close enough to failure to stimulate growth (or soreness).

The solution? Use RPE.

RPE stands for Rate of Perceived Exertion. It’s a subjective measure of effort for a given set.

Usually, RPE exists on a scale from 1–10, where an RPE 1 would be almost resting, and an RPE 10 would be a maximal effort - where you can’t possibly perform another rep (also known as muscular failure).

So after you finish a set, you assign that set a rating, based on how many more reps you could have done.

An RPE 9, for example, would mean you had one rep left in the tank. RPE 8 would mean two reps left, and so on.

For muscle growth, you should aim to work no lower than an RPE 7 — that means no more than 3 reps left in the tank by the end of your set.

 

3. Training Volume

If your technique is solid, and your RPE is accurate, then it might be worth assessing the number of sets you do (also known as your training volume).

Most people see best results from 12–24 hard sets per muscle group per week.

But this should be spread evenly across 2 or 3 sessions of 6–8 sets, to make sure you get the most out of each set.

If you’re already somewhere in that ballpark, start by taking your current volume and increasing it by no more than 20%.

So if you’re doing 10 sets for your glutes each week, you would start by adding 2 sets across the entire week.

Then monitor your soreness from session to session.

If you’re completely recovered (or never got sore) by the next time you train your glutes that week, then you could probably benefit from more volume.

In which case, add another 20%, and repeat the process.

Troubleshooting Your Soreness

Here’s a quick summary of the above:

  1. Soreness doesn’t cause growth, but it can be a good proxy.
  2. If you’re not sore but happy with your progress, you don’t need to change anything.
  3. If you’re not sore and not happy with your progress, start by improving your technique. Then, train closer to failure. Finally, add sets if necessary.

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