Soreness – what does it tell us?

I did my squat workout on a Tuesday morning, like I always do. By Wednesday night, I was so sore I could barely walk.

I promise I’m not always this callous.

Some of you will read this and think “that sounds awful.” Others will read this and think “that must have been a great workout.” There’s something about feeling sore that can be so satisfying to someone who loves working out. 

The truth is, soreness can be a really useful indicator of a few things. It’s something I keep track of in my own training and something I need to know about when my clients are experiencing it. Can you guess what they are?

What Soreness Tells me as a Coach

You moved in a new way

In that picture of me up top, I’m doing Cossack squats. I had this “craving,” for lack of a better term, do do some lateral movement. I could tell my body needed to move in a plane of motion other than just forward all the time (hey, that’s what running is), so I added these to my program. I am BAD at them. I can barely keep my opposite leg straight, I could only get 6 reps on each side with just 50lbs, and all 6 reps were tough. I did 3 sets.

This is why I couldn’t walk on Wednesday. While I squat and lunge frequently, I always choose variations in the same plane of motion (like reverse lunges and barbell squats). I never asked my body to move laterally under load, and therefore some of the supporting muscles – primarily my adductors – were challenged in a big way. And they were not ready.

This is the soreness you’ll sometimes see referred to as DOMS – or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. It doesn’t start until a day or so after the offending training session, and can last several days after (I’ve always found day 3 to be the worst). You’ll get DOMS from new movements (like what I did here), starting an entirely new training program, or re-starting a program after taking time off (like my client who texted me above).

You aren’t recovered from training

Sometimes you’ll find yourself feeling sore all over and all the time. It’s not connected to a new exercise or starting a new training program. It may coincide with an increase in volume or intensity in your program – when you’re peaking for a meet or a race, for instance. You may feel generally fatigued. This indicates a lack of recovery.

Remember, training is the stimulus needed to improve our strength or endurance or speed, but we don’t adapt and get better until we RECOVER.

If you keep breaking down muscle tissue (which you do by design in every training session) and don’t give your body the things it needs to rebuild, you just end up with a broken down body and not much to show for it. What things do you need to prioritize to recover and rebuild that tissue? You already know – sleep comes first, then nutrition, then all of the more “fun” recovery modalities (massage, floating, foam rolling, yoga, etc).

So if a client comes to me saying that she’s feeling sore and beat up all the time, I know the first thing we need to talk about is how she’s sleeping. If that’s as good as it can get, we talk nutrition. Is she eating enough protein? Is she fueling herself with carbs, particularly around training? If not, we work to fix it.

What Soreness Does NOT Tell Me About a Client

How effective the workout was

Humans love instant gratification, but obviously this doesn’t jive with training. It takes time and consistent effort to see the results of your program (both in exercise and nutrition). One of the ways we try to get around that need for instant gratification is by looking for other instant feedback, or proof of the work we put in. Like laying in a puddle of sweat feeling like you’re about to vomit after an hour of HIIT. Or feeling really sore after finishing a session.

But as stated above, that soreness really just indicates that you either encountered a new movement OR this workout was more intense than your usual sessions. That’s it. It doesn’t mean you did anything “better” or that only that level of training session will get you to your goals. In fact, if you train like this all the time, you’re likely to run into that underrecovered state way faster than someone on a measured training plan.

We can’t go all-out all the time. If you try to, you’re “all-out” abilities are just going to decrease over time (see breaking down above). No good powerlifting program has you squatting 100% of your max every training session. No good running program has you doing a max effort 5k every session either. We work submaximally most of the time. That’s where we build the strength and endurance needed to get better for the next time we DO test our maxes.

Long story short – I expect you to be sore after racing the 10k you’ve been training for. I don’t expect you to be sore DURING most of that training. If you are, we have to address your recovery.

How many calories you’re burning

He can follow a trail like a champ.

Soreness and calorie burn have nothing to do with one another. If I took a month off squatting, I could go back to squatting just 135 for 3 sets of 5 and I’d be so sore I couldn’t walk for days. I would not have burned many calories. But I do burn a sizeable number of calories on a weekend hike at my local state park, and unless it was unusually steep (or my hiking partner wasn’t carrying his share), I wouldn’t be sore.

Unsurprisingly, calorie burn during a workout doesn’t matter to me as a coach unless I’m working with an endurance athlete who will need to eat on the move or an athlete looking at two-a-day workouts. Otherwise, I care more about how active you’re being OUTSIDE the gym. You can only burn so many calories in an hour. If you really want to increase your daily caloric expenditure, you’ll need to get moving during your normal life. I pay attention to clients’ step counts for this reason!

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Essentially: soreness is something to pay attention to, but not necessarily something to seek out. Remember, if you want to get better at something, you’ll need to do it A LOT. Which means you’ll get used to doing it. Which means it won’t make you super sore all the time (unless you aren’t recovering).

Sore isn’t better. Recovered and ready to train again is better. Sore is a piece of information letting you and your coach know how to you’re adapting and how to proceed. Keep mental note of it, but don’t put more stock in it than it deserves.

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