Is Muscle Soreness a Sign That Your Muscles are Getting Huge?

In the May 2011 edition of Muscular Development, a study was presented posing the following question: is muscle soreness indicative of muscle hypertrophy, or an increase in muscle size?

The study utilized a stationary bike, with the resistance set to extreme levels, to overly fatigue the lower body muscles. Participants included well-trained individuals as well as people that were mostly sedentary. After each group performed the workout, perceived muscle soreness was recorded—along with levels of growth factors such as Insulin-like Growth Factor-1, or IGF-1.

Obviously, the sedentary group rated their soreness as much higher than the trained group. (Remember way back, when you first getting back into serious training? How damn sore you would get after a great workout?). However, the interesting part was that levels of IGF-1 and MGF were nearly identical between the two groups. This seemingly shows that there isn’t a clear correlation between soreness and hypertrophy. 

But is there really no connection between soreness and hypertrophy?

Earlier I told you to remember back to the beginning of your training and how sore you used to get. Now I am sure you still get sore after a workout, but probably not as much as you once did. During this earlier period, how quick were your gains? I know for me, it felt like I got bigger and stronger every week, whereas now it takes a bit longer to notice the gains.

I know that this has to do with adaptation of the muscle, but isn’t that really the same conversation? 

Clarkson and Tremblay presented a study in Journal of Applied Physiology, and suggested “an adaptation takes place such that the muscle is more resistant to damage and any damage that does occur is repaired at a faster rate.” If a muscle is more resistant to damage, it will take more stress to actually damage it—this is a basic principle of training. However, the study went on to show that even increasing intensities in future workouts failed to produce relative levels of muscle damage. 

So although in the first study both groups had similar levels of growth factors, it is possible that the untrained group simply utilized the growth factors more than the trained group. The body does this with many processes. For instance, when you consume too many carbs you have an increase in blood sugar. Once your muscles and other organs accept as much glucose as they need to fill their glycogen stores, the excess glucose is broken down in the liver and converted to fatty acids, then stored in adipose. This may be the same type of thing happening in the muscles with the growth factors. 

In the trained group, the muscle cell receptors may not be as sensitive to the hormones, so even though these are present in the muscle, they may not be utilized. 

Both sides of the argument present valid arguments, but some people in the community believe there is not enough information to make a definitive decision. Our belief is that since everyone is so genetically different, there will never be a clear-cut answer to this question. 

You always hear, “you have to do what works for you.” People have different levels of recoverability, and even pain perception. You hear some guys say they never get sore after a workout, while others are always sore for days. Yet they may all be growing at the same rate. 

So, the best thing is to find what works for you. 

If you find that after a workout, you got really sore and your body yielded good growth results, then you better push for that feeling every time. Just make sure you fully recover before your next workout. 

If you feel you don’t need to be sore to grow, then you are lucky. That means less pain in your life.

But what’s the bottom line?

TRAIN YOUR ASS OFF EVERY TIME YOU STEP INTO THE GYM, EAT RIGHT, AND SLEEP ENOUGH!

Everyone knows for sure THAT promotes growth. 

  1. Do you need to be sore to grow? Robbie Durand. Muscular Development.  Volume 48, No. 5, May, 2011
  2. Exercise-induced muscle damage, repair, and adaptation in humans.  P.M. Clarkson and I.M. Tremblay.  Journal of Applied Physiology July 1988 vol. 65 no. 1 1-6