The surprising answer: Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), doesn’t necessarily have bearing on strength gain.
We could theoretically get stronger until our genetic peak without ever getting sore (it would be surprising – but it COULD happen).
But is being sore a requirement for muscle growth?
In Order of Importance, These Are THREE Mechanisms for Muscle Growth and Strength Adaptation:
#1 – Mechanical Tension – without a doubt, the most important driver for strength AND hypertrophy.
This is as simple as lifting heavy weights and progressively adding weight to lifts over time, which continues to increase muscle tension.
#2 – Metabolic Stress – Is composed of three elements: The build-up of metabolites in the muscle (lactate, creatine, and others), Hypoxia (lack of oxygen to the muscle) and cell-swelling (AKA the pump). Supersets, drop sets, working “close” to failure and “feeling the burn” are all components of metabolic stress.
#3 – Muscle Damage – this is the result of lifting weights with mechanical tension and metabolic stress. Muscle damage can be increased by focusing on the eccentric (lowering) portion of the lifts and performing lifts with an extended (stretch) position, such as RDL or DB Flies). Due to muscle damage, the body must recover and super-compensate so that it can grow new muscle tissue.
Soreness is PRIMARILY a factor of muscle damage and metabolic stress, meaning that if training was low rep & low volume, we could theoretically continue to get stronger without getting sore.
But if we are training with varied rep ranges, and we don’t get sore – it does beg the question, why?
In most cases, we’re missing one of the three pathways.
-Are we working hard enough? (approximately 1-3 reps shy of failure?).
-Are we attempting to add more weight to lifts, week-to-week? (progressive overload)
-If we aren’t adding weight, are we adding volume? (more sets and reps)
-Are we doing the movements with tempo and putting focus on the proper muscles doing the work?
-Are we socializing, resting too long, or getting distracted by our phone?
If we train with an appropriate level of volume and we don’t get sore, we have probably adapted to the level of volume we are using.
This means we must either increase volume (probably not the best) OR deload so the body can reset its baseline, then go through an accumulation phase by slowly adding volume back in (the more likely answer).
The final consideration is that certain people just have better mind/muscle connection and can more easily get sore from some movements over others. These are probably the movements we should prioritize in our training, since they work the best FOR YOU.
While soreness doesn’t mean you are making gains, and NOT being sore doesn’t mean you AREN’T making gains, soreness is usually a pretty good proxy for the three-tiered mechanisms for muscle growth.