Is muscle soreness an indicator of a good workout?

Myth:Sweat and Soreness Are Signs of a Good Workout.

Fact: How sweaty and sore you get are not indicators of an effective workout.

It can feel good to work up a sweat, and a bit of soreness can serve as a nice reminder that we moved our bodies and did something physical. But the truth is, neither sweat nor soreness is necessarily indicative of an effective workout.

Those things may feel nice, emotionally, but they don’t always have a solid physiological carryover.

Why do we sweat (or not) when we work out?

In healthy people, sweat is a natural response that aids in cooling down the body. When sweat evaporates, it cools the skin's temperature and helps prevent overheating. During exercise, the heart rate typically goes up, as does body temperature.

That said, just because your body temperature rises doesn't mean you're making progress. Your body temperature could increase because of:

  • The environment

  • The clothes you’re wearing

  • Your genetic predisposition to sweating

  • How recently you've eaten

  • Your hormones

  • Whether you're nervous, anxious, excited, etc.

Yes, sweat can be an indicator that you're exercising hard.

But exercising hard doesn't necessarily mean progress.

It’s not necessary to sweat to make progress. While, in certain cases, we can draw a correlation between the two, there isn’t a direct cause and effect relationship.

When you’re working hard, you may be likely to sweat more. But if you’re exercising in a cool environment and wearing moisture-wicking clothing, even if you’re working hard, you may not sweat all that much.

(Just like you could be sweating up a storm when you’re packed into public transit during rush hour, yet you wouldn’t confuse that with a hard workout, would you?)

What about muscle soreness?

When you challenge your muscles in a significant way — for example by lifting weights — the physical stress creates tiny, microscopic tears in your muscle fibers. With proper nutrition and rest, your body repairs those tiny tears and rebuilds your muscles bigger and with the capability to be stronger than they were before.

Your body's goal is to make everything you do as easy as possible to conserve energy for your survival. This is why your body adapts and becomes bigger and/or stronger so that the tasks you've done become easier for you if you have to do them again in the future.

It's normal to experience something called DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness). DOMS usually occurs one or two days after a strength training session, and feeling a little DOMS is normal if you're challenging yourself. Some people are genetically more predisposed to experience DOMS, while others rarely feel any muscle soreness at all.

That said, it's possible to make great progress without ever being sore, especially if you recover properly from your workouts — and being sore doesn't mean you've made progress.

Typically, being excessively sore is indicative of one or more of these four things:

  • You did something new to you, or something you haven't done for a while, and your muscles aren’t used to working in this way.

  • More stress than previously applied to the muscle. You used more weight, did more overall volume, or spent more time under tension.

  • Prolonged eccentrics. You spent more time in the negative or "lowering" portion of an exercise, which can create more strain on your muscle fibers, leading to muscle soreness.

  • Under-recovery. If you're constantly sore, you're likely not recovering well from your workouts. This could be under-recovery due to a lack of protein to repair muscle, lack of overall calories, lack of sleep, too much stress, etc.

If you're typically always sweaty and sore in workouts, try this...

If you feel like workouts “don’t count” unless they’re a sweat fest, consider experimenting with different forms of more restorative movement or varying the length of your workouts. Instead of a hard run, why not go for a shorter or lighter one, attend a yoga class, or just spend some time outdoors?

Or course, if you sweat a lot no matter what you’re doing, remember that some people naturally sweat more than others. Experiment with different clothes or try exercising in different temperatures (if this is something within your control) to see if it makes a difference. Sweating a lot isn’t typically an issue, especially if you stay well-hydrated.

If you’re always extremely sore after workouts, consider paying attention to your recovery: Are you eating sufficient protein? Are you sleeping enough? Being very sore after doing new-to-you exercises is normal, but that soreness should taper once your body gets used to your program. If you’re constantly very sore, look at the other aspects in your life that may be affecting your recovery.