If your body doesn’t ache after a gym sesh, does this mean you have to work out even harder?
As you drop to the floor for the fifth burpee of the boot camp class you boldly signed up for, two thoughts cross your mind: first, you wonder how many more minutes of this you have to suffer through, which is quickly followed by the realization that you’re definitely gonna feel the pain the next morning.
But … what if you don’t feel any pain after your workout? You might think the absence of next-day soreness means you didn’t push yourself hard enough during your workout. Tender calves and aching shoulders seem like the ultimate sign of “going hard.” No pain, no gain—right?
Not necessarily. “If you’re further along in your fitness journey and have been working out for a longer period of time, it’s more likely that you won’t experience soreness,” says Taylor Patterson, an ACE certified personal trainer.
Here’s why: When you exercise, you create micro-tears in your muscles. When you’re new to the gym (or you take a class that works a previously ignored muscle group), those underused muscle fibers have an inflammatory response, which leads to delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), according to Patterson.
As always, your body has amazing ways to heal itself. “With proper rest and nutrition, the body repairs the muscle and—through supercompensation—builds additional muscle in anticipation of greater loads in the future,” says Robert Herbst, personal trainer, weight loss and wellness coach, and 19-time world champion powerlifter.
But if you’re not sore, it could simply be a sign that you’re becoming more fit. “As the body adapts to higher-intensity workouts, you may be able to do more with less soreness felt afterwards,” says Caleb Backe, health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics. “This doesn’t mean that you are not working out, but rather that your body is growing and that muscle fiber is changing.”
So how do you tell if your workouts are intense enough? Actual workout intensity is measured by your heart rate and breathing. The talk test is an easy way to measure on the spot.
During a low-intensity workout, you can carry on a full conversation, no problem. Leisurely walking is a good example.
During a moderate-intensity workout, you can talk, but not sing. Speed-walking, bicycling at less than 10 miles per hour, and water aerobics are usually moderate intensity, according to the American Heart Association.
During a vigorous-intensity workout, you can barely say a few words before having to pause to take a breath. Running, swimming laps, jumping rope, and bicycling at more than 10 miles per hour are all usually vigorous workouts.
Another way to tell if your workouts are challenging enough: Are you hitting your goals? If you’re getting the results you want (weight loss, faster running pace, better flexibility, being able to use heavier dumbbells), your workout intensity is probably effective.
Soreness isn’t a good indicator of workout intensity, but it could be a sign of a problem. Whether your gym routine is years in the making or just got started last week, any pain that lasts longer than three or four days could signal an injury that needs medical attention, according to Backe. Another textbook sign is having pain that isn’t bilateral. “In other words, if you worked on your shoulders, but only one of them is sore and painful, it could be an indication of a medical issue.”
Remember that proper recovery can help repair muscle and reduce inflammation. “Always warm up and save your static stretches for the end of your workout,” adds Ki Jones, a certified personal trainer. (Try these dynamic stretches before your next workout.) Jones also recommends foam rolling to help reduce soreness after a workout.
Measuring physical activity intensity. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015. (Accessed on March 16, 2018 at https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/measuring/index.html.)
Moderate to vigorous - what is your level of intensity? Dallas, TX: American Heart Association, 2015. (Accessed on March 16, 2018 at http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/PhysicalActivity/FitnessBasics/Moderate-to-Vigorous---What-is-your-level-of-intensity_UCM_463775_Article.jsp#.WqwR_pM-fVo.)