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Starting Strength in the Real World


Soreness, Training, and Practice

by Mark Rippetoe | September 03, 2019

pile of tools to fix soreness caused by a bad program

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is a part of human life. It is a function of the use of the eccentric phase of muscle contraction, the part where your muscles get longer as they produce force. Lowering yourself into the bottom of the squat, lowering the bar to your chest when you're benching, or the descent from the top of a chin-up are all examples of eccentric movements that can make you sore. The mechanism has to do with the way the contractile machinery of your muscles functions at the sub-cellular level; look it up if you are interested.

Even though some soreness is unavoidable in strength training, a properly constructed strength program does not produce debilitating DOMS, because the adaptation to the stress includes the adaptation to the eccentric component of the work. Incremental increases of 5 pounds or less stress the force production adaptation well within the limits of manageable recovery, and the soreness this produces is minimal because the stress is not that much more than the previous workout. Gradual increases accumulate, adding up to huge differences in strength, and the process does not make you bone-deep sore after the first couple of workouts.

In contrast, workouts designed to “confuse” your muscles, or programs that feature variable or random exercise selection, high-rep bodyweight exercises, and infrequent exposure to the primary barbell movements are widely recognized as DOMS generators, because you never have a chance to adapt to the varying loads, ranges of motion, or exercises you do only once every 3-4 weeks. They don't make you stronger in a gradual predictable intentional way, and you're sore all the time.

The amazing thing is that light weight for very high reps will cripple you for days, whereas a 5-pound PR for 3 sets of 5 in the novice progression barely produces any soreness at all. Many people experience 5 months of steady progress on a novice progression, taking their squats from 115 to 315 with very little soreness, while 100 “air squats” makes nobody stronger and everybody sore as hell every time, everywhere – quads, hamstrings, adductors, glutes, all the things you had planned on using in practice the next day. Squats, presses, bench presses, deadlifts, and cleans may be boring if you depend on variety for your motivation and entertainment, but they always work, every time. And progress can be very entertaining.

But you may be one of those interesting people who are earning penance through physical misery. You have done something wrong, and soreness is atonement and redemption. Or you may be merely uneducated, and believe that soreness is essential for progress in the gym. In either case, you have attached value to DOMS that it does not merit.

And soreness may very well limit the productively of the time spent in sports practice. If your training is “affecting your game” adversely – you are unable to effectively practice because of the soreness being produced by random hard things or “functional training” that features new and exciting exercises so frequently that you cannot adapt, while involving weights so light they cannot make you stronger – your training is not being managed productively. Golfers, racquet sports players, fencers, archers, track and field athletes, and all athletes whose sports involve accuracy and precision depend on practice for skill development and maintenance. If soreness from training impedes practice, it cannot improve performance. In such a situation, not training at all may be preferable to training for pain instead of progress.

Constant extreme soreness is also indicative of a high level of systemic inflammation, which results in elevated cortisol levels. Chronic cortisol elevation is a bad deal, a precursor to potentially significant problems all over the body, and intentionally staying sore is a profoundly stupid idea. Figure out a better way to pay whatever debt you perceive you have.

Soreness does not make you stronger – it just makes you hurt. As I've said, it is possible to train productively for months without experiencing a tenth of the soreness produced by The Filthy Fifty, and at the same time getting much stronger. And since strength improves all aspects of athletics, the best way to train is with a progressively loaded, intelligently designed barbell-based program that is boring, repetitive, effective, not confusing to anybody or anything, and that works every time it's tried.


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