I used to be the type who felt that a workout wasn’t effective without being sore. And by sore, I mean not being able to walk straight or put my shirt on by myself for 3 days. And worse, I told everyone around me how sore I was to brag about what I did. I’m starting to wonder if soreness was for my muscles or my ego.
Research shows that soreness isn’t a requirement for muscle growth or an indication of any other progress. In fact, scientists still don’t have a clear idea what soreness really is. We do know that it is largely a product of repeated eccentric contraction (muscle lengthening under load). Some say its stagnate lactic acid in our muscles. Others would say its breakdown of muscle fibers and scar tissue has formed. But they really don’t know.
The good thing about soreness is that you know you’ve done something hard. But is that really necessary? In my wise old age, I definitely think not.
The reason I say that is this. For example, yesterday I did a 5×5 squat session and 3×6 bench press finishing with as many reps of possible at 100 kg with my Mark Bell slingshot. Definitely not a difficult workout. But today, I’m walking around like my pants and shirt are going to burst at the seams. I am walking confidently, like the Incredible Hulk cracking concrete with each step. My chest is so wide open that I can’t help but walk tall and proud. Yet I wouldn’t say that I feel sore one bit. But this feeling of the “pump” is a really good feeling.
In my high school Physical Education classes, they defined fitness as being able to live your day and have a reserve should an emergency arise. That may mean sprinting across the road when a car suddenly comes your way. It may mean lifting a crashed ATV off your child with superhuman strength. I may mean replacing a light bulb that just went out. It doesn’t matter if you are an office worker or someone who does landscaping all day. You need to have enough “fitness” to be able to accomplish life and the emergencies that arise.
In my life, I realize the reverse is true as well. When I used to run ultramarathons, I could barely walk for a few days to even a week. And, truth be told, its usually the time after a race when I would throw my back out, I would come down with a cold, or I just didn’t accomplish anything around the house for days. Sure, I was proud of what I accomplished, but it always came at a huge price. I read that CrossFit Games athletes say that they don’t feel they can get back to a 100% workout until about a month after the event. I feel the same after a hard CrossFit Hero WOD. I’m non-functional for a week. So what does that say about my fitness? It means my fitness is crap. Sure, maybe I can do an Ironman, but what if I need to help a child or my wife out of a jam the day after the event? I have no “fitness” to be able to handle an emergency. So I wouldn’t call that fitness. It means you’ve overdone it.
The wise guy in me says I’m finally figuring this out. I almost programmed a WOD just now that is challenging and goes beyond my current abilities. I totally agree that those types of workouts build your mind more than your body. Its a way to tell your brain that you are OK and you can keep going no matter what. That’s admirable. But I can also meditate or do other mental tricks to make that work. Instead, I program to “tone”. Its the feeling of “The Pump” in bodybuilding. Your muscles become engorged with blood and you feel amazing! That’s what we all should seek. It doesn’t matter if its Pilates, a circuit at Planet Fitness, or a challenging CrossFit WOD. The goal should not be soreness, but hypertrophy. Muscle matters! Your heart is a muscle too. Do the same for it as well.