How often have you heard someone end a ‘brutal session’ with the retort “no pain, no gain”? Allow me to let you into a little secret. It’s complete rubbish.
Some like to portray a hardcore image of their training schedule, some even genuinely judge the effectiveness of a workout by how sore it makes them. Let me tell you, soreness isn’t a good indicator of success.
All too often I even hear trainers — experienced people, who in my opinion should know better — celebrate ‘beasting’ trainees into the ground and how much pain they put them through. These aren’t good people to employ.
When we do any resistance training, what we’re effectively aiming to do is create micro-trauma (little tears) in our muscle fibres. In the 24–72 hours or so after training, our body repairs the micro-traumas, and given adequate nutritional help and recovery time will repair into a slightly bigger and stronger muscle. If a muscle isn’t used to coping with this process, for instance you’re new to training or you’ve just started doing a different exercise, then that dull ache you may well feel the next morning is known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or ‘DOMS’.
So, at the very beginning of a training career, are you going to feel DOMS fairly regularly? Of course. But it’s like anything else — the soreness you feel the morning after doing something new for the first time can be awful, but the more you practise that activity and get better at it, the less often you’ll encounter soreness. Your body adapts (the scientific term is that you are taking advantage of the “repeated bout effect”).
Even still, DOMS can rear its head from time to time, but when it does, you should be able to point to a reason why. Most commonly it’s down to not properly factoring in the repair/recovery of the muscles in question. Was your nutrition on point that day? Did you rest properly between sessions? Did you get enough quality sleep? These will all have a profound effect.
If you asked a high level athlete in any discipline how often they get properly sore after a training session it would be very rarely indeed, which goes to show that if you couple a consistent training schedule with proper nutrition and recovery (as the athlete would undoubtedly have) you can continue to make progress over the long term without the need to feel banged up half the time.
So how do you judge the effectiveness of a training routine?
Are you adding weight to the bar? Are you adding reps and sets? Are you increasing your work capacity? These are all objective things you can track. Don’t base how happy you are with a training session on your soreness the next day.
Check out the training history of any top bodybuilder or powerlifter — they could show you old journals with years and years of linear progression in their training, many without ever over-reaching or getting injured as they planned properly for the long term.
So the next time you hear ‘no pain, no gain’, have a smile to yourself and safe in the knowledge that you’ve planned your training properly and will continue making tangible, trackable gains for a long time to come.