I believe there’s a slightly sadistic side to anyone that’s experienced success with working out; we tend to enjoy the “Jell-O legs” after a great lower body session, or not being able to itch your head after a grueling upper body lift. These are topped off by the satisfaction of having to practically wring your t-shirt out from sweat before you toss it in the laundry. It is totally okay to enjoy these side effects- full disclosure I certainly do as well. However, it is imperative to not prioritize soreness and perspiration as actual goals when creating a workout.
One of the most troubling aspects I find in the fitness industry today, is how so many average gym goers determine what a “good” workout is. For many, a ‘good’ workout is determined by the amount of sweat expired and subsequently the amount of muscle soreness they experience a day or two after the session. Muscle soreness actually seems almost like a badge of honor to some- and even drives the programming of the workout. (Meaning, exercises, sets and reps are performed in order to make yourself sore the next day)
Letting perspiration and muscle soreness determine the effectiveness of a workout is wrong- because neither remotely begin to tell the full story of whether a training session is “good” or not.
Keep Muscle Soreness and Sweating in PERSPECTIVE
Consider this- I can have a client perform burpees for a full 60 minute session, and I guarantee they will be dripping sweat leaving the workout and extremely sore the next day or two or three. An hour full of burpees is absolutely the most ridiculous workout you could ever imagine, yet, for some it would qualify as a ‘good’ workout because there was a ton of sweat and they couldn’t even get out of bed the next day.
When there’s no rhyme or reason as to why you’re doing an exercise (aside from trying to make yourself sweat and sore) you are creating the perfect scenario for a serious doctor’s visit- because it’s only a matter of time before you get hurt. Muscle soreness and sweating should be byproducts of an effective workout- not the main goal. In other words, if your goal is general health and functionality- which should be the main goal of most non-competitive athlete gym-goers- then your workout goals should look like this:
- Proper exercise selection for your goal/body
- Train in all 3 planes of motion
- Maintain joint integrity through each exercise
- Seek full range of motion on each exercise with
- Improve flexibility on exercises you cannot execute full ROM
- Seek to maintain and improve strength levels over time
Why Muscle Soreness Doesn’t Work as a Workout Barometer
In the sports and physical therapy worlds, the S.A.I.D principle basically lays out why muscle soreness is not an accurate measurement of the quality of a training session. This principle stands for: Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. In very simple terms, this means that the body will become accustomed to the load placed upon it relatively quickly. After the first full week or two of training, the body has already adapted to the imposed demands placed upon it- a lot of times this adaptation will even occur within a set! (ever notice that the first set of an exercise feels particularly heavy, even though it’s a warm up set, then your second set, with heavier weight, doesn’t feel nearly as heavy? That’s the SAID principle in practice).
Everyone is different regarding muscle soreness. Some people will experience soreness the day after a training session and others have more of a DOMS effect (delayed onset muscle soreness) and will be more sore 2 days later. There are numerous variables that will contribute to muscle soreness:
- Occupation– if you train in the morning then go sit at a desk for 8-10 hours with your only movement being going to the water fountain, you’re not going to feel great the next day.
- Recovery methods– Are you rehydrating enough? Are you consuming the proper amount of protein to aid in muscular recovery? How much sleep are you getting at night? If you’re chronically sore then you may want to consider this area.
- Consistency of training schedule– do you train at 8 PM then follow it up with a 6 AM training session? Or do you go to the gym on a Monday and Tuesday, then miss till the next Wednesday? Because that is a recipe for muscle soreness as well.
- Newness of workout– Did you just start a new phase of a workout program? Because new workouts will inevitably create muscle soreness initially.
Due to the SAID principle though, muscle soreness for many will not occur much after the first week or two of a new workout- which is FINE! This doesn’t mean the workout’s quality is any less. All that it means is that after about a 4-week cycle, it’s time to switch some variables of the workout.
If you do experience slight muscle soreness after a workout that you’ve been doing a few weeks- that is fine as well. Just be mindful of the fact that if you get extremely sore after weeks of a familiar workout, it may be time to look at your recovery methods. (As I mentioned before: Are you ingesting enough protein post-lift? Drinking enough water? Getting enough sleep? Moving around enough outside of your workout? Etc.)
The Story with Sweat
Everyone is different regarding perspiration. Some people start sweating when they walk in the gym doors and others can train vigorously for 90 minutes and have a little sweat build up on their upper lip. It is for this reason that you CANNOT judge the quality of a workout based on how much sweat poured off your body. Gender, age, genetics and gym temperature/humidity will all impact the amount you sweat during a training session.
If you do sweat, don’t necessarily chalk that up as weight just melting off you either- because the few pounds you lose through perspiration is almost immediately gained back through rehydration.
ONLY as a byproduct, is sweating a great aspect of a workout- it maintains your core body temperature and acts as a detoxification from heavy metals and bacteria in our bodies. There is also undoubtedly a tremendous sense of accomplishment associated with finishing a great workout dripping with sweat. While that will boost your mental imagery of yourself, just be sure to always let perspiration be a side-effect of a great training session, rather than the goal. Otherwise, you’ll be programming your workouts for the wrong reasons, and potentially setting yourself up for injury.
The Danger Behind Chasing Sweat and Soreness
When your main goals are to make yourself sweat and sore, that’s when exercise logic goes straight out the window. The best coaches can go through their entire program and explain why every single exercise is being performed- and a great coach’s answer is NEVER to make a client sweat or sore. If a workout is framed around variables such as perspiration and/or muscle soreness, in all likelihood the exercise selection is illogical and dangerous for most- let alone the volume that is usually prescribed as well.
Unfortunately, with the rise of various fads in the fitness industry, the concept of “Muscle Confusion” has become one of the most bastardized terms in the industry. On its most basic level, muscle confusion means changing certain variables of a workout in order to avoid plateauing. Once your body becomes accustomed to a particular workout, you run the risk of halting progress…however, this rarely occurs because most don’t progress the basic exercises far enough to even experience plateaus.
The concept of muscle confusion has sadly allowed for bad coaches or individuals lacking the proper knowledge- to put themselves through completely random workouts with illogical exercise combinations, sets and reps- all in the name of ‘muscle confusion’- AKA bypassing the SAID principle and artificially chasing muscle soreness.
While a lot of people have made substantial money on this claim, even more people have wound up unable to exercise again because of the injuries sustained following this method of training. Muscle confusion is the fallback reason for creating completely random workouts with no rhyme or reason- usually with the goal of making an individual leave the gym in a pool of sweat and unable to walk up steps the next day…which ultimately is not going to lead to long term health and function.
The bottom line is sweating and muscle soreness are very normal in the average gym-goers’ life. They both provide a lot of intrinsic value to the training experience- the satisfaction associated with both phenomena keeps many people highly motivated to keep showing up day after day. What needs to be debunked though, is the lens in which both these side-effects are being viewed. Stop walking into the gym with the determination of making yourself sweat out every bad nutritional choice you made the last week. And lose the goal of making yourself ‘can’t get out of bed’ sore the next day; instead create a workout that is geared more towards your overarching goal- be it, fat loss, muscle gain, strength improvements etc. Judge the quality of your workout by variables such as:
- Exercise Selection– proper movement patterns for your goal, age and ability
- Exercise Order– were you doing compound moves first? What exercise combinations worked or didn’t?
- Overall Volume– do your sets and reps match up with what your training goals are?
- Intensity Level– How much rest are you taking between sets? If your goal is burning fat, how much time did you spend elevating your heart rate
IF you do walk out of the gym dripping sweat or experience muscle soreness the next day or two- GREAT! If you don’t experience either of these things, but still logged a quality workout based on your own parameters, GREAT! Either way, quality workouts that are in line with your goals can occur with or without a positive correlation between sweat and muscle soreness.
Keep this in mind with your training moving forward, and ultimately it will assist in keeping you clear of exercise induced injuries!
Yours in Fitness and Health,
Your Final Reward Will Be Heartache and Tears, If You’ve Cheated the Guy in the Glass.