I recently had a conversation with a friend who was following an exercise plan. They had been following it for several weeks now and thought that they weren't making progress because they weren't sore after their workouts anymore. It seemed that their concept of progress was tied to how much they felt they had beaten their body up over a workout and how "sore" they were the following day.
No Pain, No Gain... right?
There's a misconception in the fitness industry that feeling sore after a workout is good—that pain is the determining factor for whether a workout is good or not.
The phrase "No Pain, No Gain" has been around since the1980's. It's an exercise motto/mantra which encourages you to push your body past it's limit so that you gain greater rewards, and faster progress towards your goals.
That soreness you feel after a workout is not a sign of progress
If you wake up the next day from a workout, feeling a dull pain or tenderness, that's what is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (or DOMS for short). DOMS are not a sign of progress, they only indicate that the muscles have done something that they are unaccustomed to. This is tied heavily to the idea of "No Pain, No Gain", and this has kind of been taken to the extreme. Many bodybuilders constantly switch up the exercises they perform in order to stimulate DOMS and achieve great results, however it's not the fact that they are sore all of the time which is helping them progress, it's just a by-product of them performing different exercises, and applying progressive overload by accumulating more volume.
What 'Progress' Really Is
Progress can be boiled down to being able to perform above the habitual level. When you perform above this level, your body has to adapt to the new level, it has to improve and get better. That's where progress comes from—when you progressively overload your muscles.
We see this outside of fitness as well, with people starting new jobs or going to school. You can't suddenly be the best, you have to continually improve your knowledge and skills until you are the best. Fitness is no different, we have to continually progress so that our habitual level is higher than what it was before.
Progress Can Come in Many Forms
There're several different ways to determine progress but the two major ones are as follows:
Quantitative progress can be boiled down to numbers. It's a very good way to measure progress because it's easier to objectively say "this number is higher than this number", but how do you measure quantitatively? There are several different points we can measure and here are a couple of examples:
- Reps - How many repetitions were you able to perform before you we unable to perform any more?
- Weight - What weight did you use to perform the exercise? Did you lift a weight that was more than last time?
- Sets - How many times you performed a series of repetitions?
- Rest Time - Did you require less rest time before performing the exercise again? Did your heart rate return to normal faster than last time?
These are all great ways to track progress quantitatively, but on their own the don't form a complete picture. For example, you may be able to perform an exercise with a heavier weight, but if you drastically drop the number of reps you can perform or are unable to do another set then you may have actually regressed. Because of that, I like to use total volume as the best marker for long term progress.
- Total Volume is calculated by taking the amount of weight you are performing, multiplied by how many reps you were able to achieve, further multipled by how many sets. It's a pretty simple calculation.
Total Volume = Weight X Reps X Sets
e.g 60kg X 6 Reps X 3 Sets = 1080 kg in total
Like I mentioned previously: If you perform the exercise with a heavier weight, but you achieve less reps, you may not necessarily be making progress. An example of this is below and as you can see, even though we have increased the weight we are lifting, our total volume has been halved. But at a heavier weight, we can work up to the same amount of reps, and when we do, our new total volume will be higher.
65kg x 3 Reps x 3 Sets = 585 kg in total
65kg x 6 Reps x 3 Sets = 1170 kg in total
Qualitative (new unaccustomed)
Qualitative progress is often forgotten about in the gym, but it's equally important and can be a great way to measure progress even though it is less concrete than weight x reps x sets.
- Range of Motion - Performing the exercise in a greater plane of movement.
- Time Under Tension - Taking longer to perform the exercise with greater control
- Performing a more difficult variant of the movement - Progressing from regular push ups to a one-arm push is definitely progress....
While these are more difficult to track, they can certainly be used to gauge progress over time. Particularly for beginners and those who are new to exercise, it can be difficult to perform movements that they've never done before with any significant load, so they can't track progress quantitatively. If they were to start off with a movement that they can perform with good form like a free standing standing squat onto a box and then move up to a free standing squat without the box, then that would be progress.
DOMS don't necessarily mean progress - Pain after your workouts don't necessarily mean progress, it is just a sign that your muscles have done something they are unaccustomed to. Progressively overloading your muscles is key to progress.
There are many ways to track progress - It may not make sense for you to track weights or reps, for example if you are just learning how to perform the exercise and it is very difficult to add reps each week, don't worry! Just focus on performing the exercise better qualitatively each week before you start worrying about adding weight or more reps.