The Four Sores

Live Sore is the modern No Pain - No Gain. I get the image that a person or organization may want to portray. I'm a huge advocate for the myriad of ways that physical activity benefits the body and mind. But this soreness that we speak of is a fairly complex concept that is too meaningful to remain so misunderstood. Embrace The Pain is a -liiittle- lacking in perspective to be taken seriously.

Here are a few important things that you should know about soreness. I'm attempting to summarize and keep it light rather than heavily referenced with research like THIS, which is truly a great read if you're into that sort of thing.


Almost every type of soreness will fit into one of these categories.

1. Serious Trouble is the most obvious sore. You threw too many pitches and that elbow throbs. The lumbar sniper drops you to the ground about an hour after dead lifts. You bench pressed your way to a torn pec. These are not good, and I know nothing about any of them (sarcasm). Serious Trouble has nothing to do with living well or being awesome, except for lessons learned and hopefully shared with others.

2. Stupid Sore is being "All kinds of (muscular) sore" without injury. You pitched a complete game yesterday and now feel it in your upper back and hips. Yesterday was the first time in a while that you played flag football or squatted, and today you wince at the site of stairs.

Stupid Sore can be okay, especially when it's an honest mistake from taking on too much, too quickly. But suffering regular or intentional Stupid Soreness is...not smart. It has the potential to land you in Serious Trouble.

Being regularly Stupid Sore is a sign of inadequate preparation. There is no reason to be debilitated for three days after a workout or sporting event. Train differently. Instead of going all-out and then suffering, take advantage of having an event to prepare for. You should be physically active anyway, so plan ahead and get there gradually. You will perform better, feel better, and minimize the risk of injury. The magic truly is in the journey.

Consistent extreme soreness is also a sign of a poorly designed training program. Some personal trainers and fitness enthusiasts equate soreness with progress, imagining that more soreness means more gainz.

"Annihilate one body part per training session," they say. "Confuse the muscles so they don't get stagnant," they say. While muscle soreness is a definite marker of muscle fiber disruption, it is absolutely not a sign of progress in muscle size or physical performance. There are far too many variables to make the simple claim that more soreness equals better growth, speed, or strength.

The question is not how much training we can tolerate, but instead how much training we can recover and supercompensate from.

This is one of the primary reasons why the popular "Bro-Split" routine (where each body part is trained once per week) fails to deliver anything more than perpetual soreness and little opportunity to progress. Constantly changing the routine in the hopes of "muscle confusion" is far from optimal in terms of getting your body to adapt and perform better.

3. Hardly Sore can be good and bad. It could mean that you went through the motions without pushing yourself. Next time you will increase the resistance or reps or decrease the rest time. Or maybe you really do need to go home and take a nap.

Maybe you're hardly sore due to a planned de-load in the middle of a challenging training cycle. For the intermediate or advanced athlete, this is a well-played and highly effective move toward genuine progress.

Maybe you are in-season or would otherwise like to obtain some of the benefits of training without feeling flat for a day or two. For this you would focus on minimizing time under tension and eccentric (lowering/lengthening) movements. Olympic lifts and sled/car pushes and other high power moves may be a good option here.

Some athletes who are involved in weight class sports may use precise training methods to increase strength and power primarily through better neuromuscular efficiency rather than through increased muscle size. But the far majority of us should be less concerned with the scale and be happy to carry a little more muscle, which is functional and metabolically active.

4. Gift Sore is the perfect amount of sore. It's like unwrapping a package of gainz while also having a deeper satisfaction that can't be bought or given. Mild soreness, perhaps, means a little bit more. You know that you challenged the system and can expect something productive to come from it. But you're not so sore that you have to repeatedly whine to your family and coworkers regarding how sore you are.

You trained smart and hard.

Again, the research clearly states that soreness due to exercise does not correlate with gains in muscle size or performance. But anecdotaly I've found that the most consistent and genuine progression seems to occur around the times when mild soreness is present.

Most of us, most of the time should be *trying* for Gift Sore. Mild soreness may be the golden ticket that indicates the presence of a sufficient growth stimulus that does not exceed the body's capacity for recovery.