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April 02, 2022
Just about anybody who has ever done any type of exercise or training knows what DOMS is, or at least how it feels. DOMS stands for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, which does a pretty good job of explaining what it is; it’s the muscle soreness that you feel the day after doing an exceptionally tough workout or perhaps after doing a new movement. So does that mean that DOMS is good since you feel it after a good workout? And, is DOMS needed for muscle growth?
There is a lot of misunderstanding about this phenomenon that we want to unpack to help you understand how to deal with this muscle soreness. In this article, you’ll learn:
We’ve all been there; we’ve taken a little too much pre-workout and absolutely raged at the gym. While the insane pump you got eventually fades away, it’s replaced by stiffening joints and painful muscles.
You went and got yourself a case of DOMS!
As mentioned above, DOMS stands for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness and refers to the discomfort that can develop after an intense training session, after a new exercise, or by just being a brand new beginner.
Regardless of when you work out, you almost always notice it after you wake up in the morning or take a nap during the day. Its intensity can range from slight discomfort to the point where it’s literally debilitating. Further, it can intensify over the course of 48 hours.
We’ll talk about how we can prevent it or minimize it later, but first, what is it (other than pain)?
While the symptoms of DOMS are understood as well as its relationship to intense training, quite interestingly, researchers don’t actually know exactly what causes it or why it even occurs. For example, one theory states it could act as a safety measure for you to reduce injury to a stressed muscle. It’s suggested that it warns you to bring down the intensity or risk further injury. To be clear, we are not saying this is what it is; we’re merely showing you how researchers are still looking for answers and the theories they offer - Really, we just find it fascinating that there is still so much we don’t understand about the human body!
Another theory that tries to explain what causes DOMS is called the “enzyme influx theory”. This suggests that extra calcium is stored within damaged muscles after exercise and can’t be released. This triggers the release of various enzymes that signal muscle breakdown. As a result, there’s inflammation of the muscle and pain occurs.
A more plausible theory, which is generally accepted today, is called the Muscle Damage Theory. This states what it sounds like, in that during weight training, muscle damage occurs, and the structure is rearranged. It should be noted that this primarily occurs during the eccentric portion of a movement. This is why slow, heavy negatives are a common method used by bodybuilders and strength athletes alike. Nonetheless, these structural damages could signal some pain receptors. However, this doesn’t even hold up 100% as the relationship between muscle damage and pain has been found to not be as strong as once thought.
Still, these are just two of numerous theories that try to explain the pain. Yet, none of these are verified to be the cause of DOMS, and in reality, all of them could play a role in the discomfort we feel. While we don’t know the exact mechanisms of DOMS, we do know there is a definite relationship between strenuous or intense exercise and muscular soreness.
Many people wonder if DOMS is a good thing or a bad thing. Actually, it depends on the severity as DOMS itself isn’t inherently bad or good. For example, if you wake up and can’t move, in this case, DOMS would be seen as a “bad” thing. Even still, you could argue that DOMS isn’t what’s bad; it’s the inappropriate training you engaged in that is terrible. In other words, is pain bad when you touch a stove? Not really, as it’s a signal that you’re hurting yourself. As mentioned, this is what one of theories actually suggests it is.
On the other hand, DOMS could signal that you are experiencing adaptations in the gym. When you speak to seasoned lifters, you may actually hear them say things like “I miss this feeling” after they catch DOMS from an intense workout. This is because their bodies have become so accustomed to stress that they rarely get the soreness, so they know they crushed it extra hard when they do.
The bottom line is that because we don’t fully understand what DOMS is, so we can’t really label it as good or bad. That said, a safe guess is that it’s neither, it’s just something that occurs and is part of lifting.
The association with a hard workout and DOMS leads some people to believe that it’s required for muscle growth. It isn’t. If you speak to anyone who has been lifting for an extended period, you will find out that DOMS actually stops occurring quite fast, at least to a high degree. What we mean is that your body seems to learn how to handle strenuous exercises without DOMS showing itself. However, trainees can keep on growing without the presence of DOMS.
We’re not sure of anyone who could continually train for years while waking up every morning and not being able to move pain-free. After you have some time under the bar, you may have a session where you wake up feeling a little extra beat up, but it’s nowhere compared to the pain you felt your first week. Remember, while there is a relation between strenuous exercise and muscle damage, correlation isn’t causation.
Unfortunately, this idea has led many people down the wrong path. It’s not uncommon for people to think they need to destroy themselves every session for progression in the gym. It’s even touted in perhaps the most famous gym meme there is “No Pain, No Gain”. While you absolutely do need to push yourself in the gym, you don’t need to chase DOMS.
In fact, there may actually be a stronger relationship between DOMS and mitigation of muscle growth. This can happen by either the muscle being too damaged to properly recover or simply because a muscle with DOMS can not perform as much work. We’ll say it again, we don’t understand DOMS (and that’s ok) so trying to guess what it means to dictate our training is setting us up for failure.
If you want to know how to gain muscle mass, check out this article instead of chasing DOMS!
One of the best ways to treat DOMS is to mitigate it from ever happening in the first place. While it’s likely impossible to dodge forever, and even advanced lifters will often experience mild DOMS (particularly in the legs), there’s no reason to make it worse than it has to be.
Therefore, follow these first two steps to mitigate any discomfort from DOMS.
1. Start Slow:
The only population who is guaranteed to suffer from DOMS are beginners. This also includes those who have been away from the gym for some time and are just returning (even just a 2-3 weeks can bring about DOMS again).
As mentioned above, there’s a clear relationship between the intensity of training and DOMS. Since beginners have never felt the stimulus of weight training, this brand new sensation is a shock to the system resulting in DOMS. It seems that no matter how easy this population goes, they will still feel it the next day. While you may never be able to altogether avoid it, going as hard as you can on your first day is definitely not going to help.
Therefore, if you are a brand new beginner at the gym, use your first week to learn movement patterns and how to use any machines you may want to train with. While you can obviously lift, use very little weight. Again, your focus should be on learning the movement patterns of the primary lifts, not lifting a lot of weight or overdoing it on volume. The good thing is that because you are new, this will still be enough to make you stronger. After the first week, then you can start applying some weight, but even still, there’s no reason to be working at near maximal sets.
2. Use Progressive Overload Appropriately:
Similar to above, use progressive overload the way it’s supposed to be applied. Remember, progressive overload is the process by which you continually place a more significant stimulus on the muscle using a minimal increase in load. This simply means that you add 5lbs to your squat every week, not 50. While this refers to a load that your body can handle strength-wise, we can still use it at the beginning stages of lifting to help the body acclimate to the stress and mitigate symptoms of DOMS. This is especially true for beginners. Going slow is not a bad thing and will likely lead to increased gains over the long-term. However, going too hard too fast can literally make you so sore that you need to take a week off.
Even if you use a proper loading scheme and increase intensity appropriately, you’re still going to get DOMS once in a while. There are many supposed methods to treat DOMS, all with varying degrees of evidence.
Have A Proper Post-Workout Meal And Nutrition:
One of the most important things you can do to reduce DOMS is to have a post-workout meal with the right foods. To begin with, this is something that you should already be doing, so reducing DOMS is just another reason to pay attention to your nutrition.
While we generally think of our post-workout meal as vital for muscle growth, it’s actually just as important for recovering damaged muscle. Resistance training can cause microtrauma to the muscles, which is one of the possible reasons for DOMS that we spoke about above. Multiple studies have shown that consuming whey protein after weight training can expedite the healing process, enhancing muscle growth. Still, if DOMS is caused by muscle damage, this should theoretically mitigate its effects. While studies show that this isn’t necessarily true, that is, muscle damage could be reduced with no mitigation of DOMS, there’s definitely enough reason to believe it could help. Besides, you need to anyway! Again, we recommend 1.6-2.2g per kg of bodyweight of protein for most individuals.
Antioxidants for DOMS:
One addition to your diet that could help mitigate the effects are various antioxidants, specifically vitamin C and E. Unfortunately, studies have shown conflicting results concerning this. However, it’s important to note that some studies have shown DOMS symptoms to be lessened after an antioxidant supplementation protocol. While these studies are limited, we can give you an idea of the doses used:
While you can’t do this for every session (unless you want to take high doses daily), you could plan a protocol if you know you have a big workout coming. For example, if you have a competition coming up where the activity level will be longer or more intense than usual, you could supplement that.
Some of the best antioxidant foods to eat for the purpose of DOMS are:
Another common practice for lifters to mitigate DOMS is seeking alternative therapies. By this, we are referring to any number of treatments that could include:
While there are still others, it doesn’t really matter as we can’t go through each one specifically in this paper; and the general consensus is that any benefit they may give is trivial and likely not realistic for the normal trainee. Large reviews have shown that none of these therapies can offer any significant help consistently making most a waste of money and time. However, there is quite a bit of anecdotal personal experience which can’t be discounted. Therefore, our opinion on these types of things is if it makes you feel better and you can spend the extra money, or have the time, you could try. If sitting in the sauna makes you feel good, go for it. Looking to learn more about ice baths as a recovery method? Check out the benefits of ice baths here. Just know that even still, the best method to mitigate DOMS is to train with the correct intensity.
Of course, getting enough sleep is vital too for reducing DOMS.
Another question trainees have is if they can still train with DOMS. Again, there is nuance here as it will depend on the severity of your case. In short, you should be able to train while experiencing a light case of DOMS, especially if you’re training a different muscle group. In fact, light exercise can actually be one of the best pain relievers for DOMS. When you engage in exercise, you will increase the internal temperature of your body. This results in the muscle becoming more pliable and supple often referred to as “getting loose”. As your muscles relax and pressure is relieved, there will be a noticeable decrease in discomfort. Therefore, if your biceps have a case of DOMS, there’s absolutely no reason you should skip out on training legs; even training pushing muscles should be ok.
Remember that DOMS is most likely some sort of alarm warning us to take it easy. If your muscles are physically tender, you should definitely chill out for a couple days. On the other hand, if you’re just a little tight when you get out of bed but notice some improvement just walking around, you’re probably able to crush it.
As you see, DOMS isn’t really a huge deal. If anything, we can just say that it’s an unavoidable aspect of a lifter’s or athlete’s life. While not ideal, it’s a physiological phenomenon that we need to learn to live with. Still, other than for brand new beginners, DOMS is rarely bad enough to have any significant effect on our daily life, other than maybe walking funny. However, if we train at the right intensity and are mindful of extended periods of downtime, DOMS should hardly even be an issue. And one more thing to remember…you don’t need DOMS for muscle growth so stop killing yourself every day in the gym - train smart!
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