Anyone trying to lose fat or build muscle always wants to do it as quickly as possible, and that probably explains why so many people seem to base the effectiveness of a workout on the instant feedback they get from it.
Now I don’t just mean the geniuses who get on the scale, then jump on a treadmill for 30 minutes, and then get on the scale again to see all of the “fat” they already lost. Nor do I mean the other dumbasses who measure their arms, do 15 sets of curls, and then measure their arms again to see how much their biceps have already grown.
The instant feedback I’m referring to here isn’t so much seen or measured… it’s felt. I’m talking about:
These are the 2 “feelings” that people seem to use as an indicator of how effective their weight training workouts are. How so, you ask?
Well, in a lot of people’s minds, a super intense pump = a super awesome workout! Crippling muscle soreness the next day = guaranteed sign of a successful workout! Hardly any pump? Then you failed. No soreness whatsoever the next day? Then your workout was an ineffective waste of time.
But just how true is all of this? Let’s find out…
What Is Pump?
Pump (aka “the pump”) is the immediate but short term feeling you get in your muscles during your workouts as a result of blood filling the area.
You know, sorta like what happens with that other body part us guys have.
The muscle being trained feels “fuller” and “tighter” and “bigger” and just pretty awesome in general. In fact, Arnold himself agrees with this description a bit too much (warning: that link may be slightly NSFW).
The degree of pump you get depends on a few factors (e.g. exercise selection, rep tempo, etc.). But the most significant factors are likely rest periods (less rest between sets = more pump), rep ranges (higher reps per set = more pump), and more than anything else… total training volume.
Basically, the more sets, reps and exercises you do for a muscle group in a given period of time, the more “pumped” it is likely to feel.
What Is Soreness?
Whereas “the pump” is something you feel during your workout which goes away soon after, soreness (aka DOMS, aka delayed onset muscle soreness) is that feeling of “stiffness” you start to notice later on… typically several hours after your workout.
It’s pretty normal for this soreness to then last up to 1-3 days, sometimes even more. Which means, it’s much more of a long term feeling than the pump.
But just like “the pump,” the degree of soreness you experience also depends on a few different factors. Matt Perryman does the best job I’ve seen of covering every single aspect of it right here.
However, soreness tends to be a little harder to pin down than the pump is. I mean, just do a bunch of sets of dumbbell curls and you’ll have a pretty good pump in your biceps. Soreness doesn’t work quite like that.
It seems to vary widely based on the following:
- Exercise Selection
Certain exercises, specifically those with a stretch component to them, are just more prone to causing soreness than others. For example, Romanian deadlifts (the perfect real world example of this) and split squats will always make it damn near impossible for me to sit the next day. Skull crushers will always make my triceps super sore. Dumbbell flyes will cause more chest soreness for me than any amount of bench pressing ever will.
- How Accustomed Your Body Is (Or Isn’t) To What You’re Doing
The less used to something your body is, the more muscle soreness you’re likely to experience. That’s why when you’re a beginner who is starting to work out for the first time, you’ll probably be more sore after those first few workouts than you’ll ever be at any point in the future. You’ll often notice something similar when you start doing an exercise you’ve never done before or just haven’t done in a long time, or even just when you change some aspect of the way you train. But then, as more time passes and your body gets more accustomed to what you’re doing, you’ll often experience less and less soreness.
- Individual Weirdness
For example, I can’t even remember the last time my biceps were sore the next day. No matter what exercise I do, there’s just nothing. Weighted pull-ups always make my lats sore for a day or two, but lat pull-downs done at an equal intensity? Pretty rare. I can probably list a dozen more examples like these. What’s the deal? No idea. In my experience, some of us just get sore from certain things at certain times, and some of us don’t. I have no real explanation for it other than “individual weirdness.”
Now for the big question…
Are Pump And Soreness Indicators Of An Effective Workout?
Simply put… no. The presence of a pump during your workout and/or muscle soreness in the days following your workout DON’T mean you had an effective workout or a productive workout or a results-causing workout.
At the same time, NOT having a crazy pump or experiencing extreme soreness doesn’t mean your workout was bad, or ineffective, or unproductive, or useless.
As far as workout effectiveness goes, muscle soreness and pump mean nothing.
So if your training is built around what best produces these “feelings,” then congratulations… you’re training like a moron.
The same goes for if something was making you sore, but then it gradually stopped making you sore weeks/months later. That doesn’t mean it’s “not working” anymore. That’s total nonsense, and the fact that it was making you sore before didn’t mean it was ever “working” in the first place.
Then What Does Tell Us If Our Workouts Are Effective?
So if soreness/pump tell us nothing about the effectiveness of our workouts, then what does?
Well, a reader recently asked if they were doing enough in their workouts because it didn’t “feel” like they were. Part of my answer then is pretty relevant now:
You see, the goal of your workout isn’t to feel tired, drained or trashed at the end. Your goal isn’t to get tons of pump. Your goal isn’t to feel sore as hell the next day. Instead, your only real goal is to make progress. After all, that’s the one and only indicator of a successful workout.
Remember, your goal isn’t to “feel” like you’re doing enough to get results. Your goal is to actually get results. Which means, don’t base the effectiveness of your workout on how it felt. Base it on what really matters… which is the amount of progress you made.
So if progressive overload is happening at an acceptable (and realistic) rate, and your body is improving the way it should at an acceptable (and realistic) rate… then guess what?
Your workouts ARE working regardless of how much soreness or pump you’re feeling or not feeling.
But Wait… Hold On… These “Feelings” Are Still Useful
Now while muscle soreness and pump don’t tell us anything about the effectiveness of our workouts, they may not be entirely useless. In fact, they CAN serve a legitimate purpose.
They are an indicator that your muscle(s) did something.
Once again, they don’t tell us if that “something” was good or bad, useful or useless, successful or unsuccessful. But they do tell us that a given muscle group actually did something.
Confused? Here’s a few common examples of what that means and what purpose it can serve…
- If you’re doing back exercises like rows, pull-ups or lat pull-downs, and during/after the exercise it feels like your biceps did a ton of work but your back did absolutely nothing, then that’s a problem if your goal was to actually train your back rather than just move a bunch of weight around. In this case, a lack of pump/soreness is a good sign that you’re not properly using the target muscle group (a common problem: How To Use Back Muscles During Back Exercises).
- The same goes for if you do some type of bench press and feel nothing whatsoever in your chest, but your shoulders and triceps are super pumped. Again, if you’re training for strength rather than size, this matters less. You mostly just care that the bar is moving, not which muscle groups are moving it. But if you are benching for the specific purpose of training your chest, a lack of pump/soreness in that muscle group is a sign that this exercise may not be providing the intended training stimulus.
- If you do the Romanian deadlift and feel a ton of work being done by your lower back and nothing being done by your hamstrings, then this isn’t just a sign that you may not be properly training the target muscle group. It’s also a sign that your form may be terrible (e.g. rounding your back/bending at your waist instead of your hips).
See what I mean?
Now, you’ll never be able to do a row or pull-up without your biceps doing a significant amount of work, just like you’ll never be able to bench press without your triceps and shoulders doing plenty of work as well.
However, if pump and muscle soreness are showing you that those muscle groups are doing damn near ALL of the work while the main target muscle groups (back and chest respectively) are doing little to nothing, then that’s a pretty good sign you need to fix something somewhere (assuming you’re more interested in muscles than movements).
And in that regard, these feelings can serve a useful purpose after all.
The Final Verdict
So, here’s what it comes down to…
Why They Don’t Matter
On one hand, getting a pump during the workout or feeling sore in the hours/days after the workout are pretty much meaningless in terms of monitoring the success of your training and are in no way an indicator of how effective (or ineffective) your workout was. Meaning…
- You can get an amazing pump and be sore as hell the next day and have accomplished absolutely nothing (which probably describes most of the people in your gym getting shitty results).
- Or, you could have felt an average pump at best and experienced no soreness whatsoever yet had the most successful and productive results-stimulating workout of your life.
For this reason, the intent of your workout should NOT be to get a MaD SiCK BRo-PuMP or be so sore the next day that you can’t put on a shirt or sit down on a toilet. The true intent of your workout is to make progress. That progress (or lack thereof) should be the primary indicator of whether or not what you’re doing is actually working.
Why They Sometimes Can Matter
But on the other hand, these “feelings” don’t need to be ignored entirely, especially if you’re training muscles for the purpose of making them bigger, stronger and prettier.
In that case, if you do an exercise for Muscle XYZ, and have no indication of any kind during/after that Muscle XYZ actually did anything during that exercise, then that’s a possible sign that something is wrong somewhere.
Maybe your form needs to be fixed (probably the most common issue). Maybe your exercise selection needs to be adjusted. Maybe your mind/muscle connection needs to be improved. Whatever it is, if you’re training Muscle XYZ, then Muscle XYZ should feel like it’s being trained to some extent.
That definitely doesn’t mean you MUST be sore the day(s) after your workout (as mentioned above, soreness varies widely… so I wouldn’t base much on soreness). And it also doesn’t mean you need to experience the most intense pump on your life (and if you’re training intelligently, you won’t).
It just means you should feel something in the muscle being trained. Just enough to let you know that the body part that should be doing some of the work actually is.
And The Winner Is…
You shouldn’t think of pump and soreness as an indicator of workout effectiveness and progress. They’re absolutely not. What you can think of them as however is an indicator that you actually used the muscle(s) you were trying to use.