Been working out at home? Unless you’re a lucky sucker with a home gym, coming back to your pre-quarantine training is going to be a shock to the system. Yep, we might be little sore. But what is that soreness? Is it a good thing, or not?
That ache in your muscles after a workout is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS. There is wide-held idea amongst many gym junkies and workout friends that DOMS is a sign that you had a good workout and that your muscles are getting stronger and bigger. But is that true? Does that soreness mean my muscles are getting bigger? As many of us are entering a phase of more frequent and intense training than the last few months, let’s get the full picture of post exercise muscle soreness.
What is DOMS? Back in the day, we were told that DOMS could be lactic acid built up in the muscle. A by-product of the chemical processes of contracting within muscle cells. Another theory is that DOMS is the result of damage to the muscle. Over time, researchers found that DOMS is possibly the result of super tiny tears in the connective tissue of muscles that trigger a chain reaction of responses in the cells, the circulation of blood and the nervous system response.
DOMS is thought to be the result of exercise induced muscle damage (EIMD), and EIMD is related to growth of muscles. The theory is that the body’s responses to damage create the right internal situation for muscles to grow, for hypertrophy to occur. Researchers have looked at what the cells do to heal, and seen that some of what cells do in response to these tiny tears seems to be similar to what happens in muscle cells that are growing. A good guess was that muscle damage kicks of a chain reaction of healing and cellular adaptation and these trigger muscle growth. But that’s not the end of it.
SO, DOMS is GOOD, Right? Hold on, fit friends. Just because two things are observed at the same time, doesn’t mean that we can automatically say that one caused the other. And this is the case with DOMS and hypertrophy. A clear cause and effect relationship between muscle damage and muscle growth is not supported by research. For example, studies have measured muscle growth where no muscle damage was seen. And other studies have induced DOMS in research participants – even though their muscles showed no signs of damage.
So there’s not a clear relationship between the pain you feel post workout and the results you’re going to get.
Is DOMS bad? Possibly. If your goal is to increase performance, soreness only gets in your way. Successful training goals are long term, so if training is suboptimal because of soreness, your results will be delayed. In one study, researchers showed that the muscle can take over 3 weeks to recover and heal. Over the course of those weeks, people could produce less force – their muscles had less push in them before DOMS. We might expect that simply from personal experience. But it is super discouraging to have less effective workouts, and for such a long period of time. So being proud of how sore I made myself seems really silly. And, to make the most of my training and muscles, recovery and self care are essential. DOMS also has a very rare, but very dark side. When the muscles are damaged and breaking down, a life threatening condition called Rhabdomyolsis can happen, which requires immediate medical attention an can result in kidney damage.
Being regularly sore after a workout is more likely to mean your training is not a good as it could be, and you might be suffering for nothing. If you are sore a lot, it’s time to look at how helpful your training is in getting you to your goal. Whether you are trying to grow muscle or lose fat, the reduced training output when you’re in pain only makes it harder to reach your goal. Although, some people may just be more prone to soreness, muscle damage or not, for most of us taking time to warm up, working to an appropriate intensity, following good form/technique and prioritizing nutrition and recovery, will help. Like any ache or pain – it might not mean something bad, but it does mean something.
Basically, what I’m asking you to do is shoot for an overall goal, not just feeling dead after a workout and suffering for days. If that pain was the cause of muscle growth, then great. But that’s not what the evidence tells us. So as you return to training, listen to your body. Make a goal and revise your view on soreness. It’s not a prize. It’s probably messing with your ability to train as well as you could if you were less sore.
Brentano MA, Martins Kruel LF. A review on strength exercise-induced muscle damage: Applications, adaptation mechanisms and limitations. J Sports Med Phys Fitness 51: 1–10, 2011. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21297557/
Schoenfeld, Brad J. MSc, CSCS, CSPS1; Contreras, Bret MA, CSCS2Author Information Strength and Conditioning Journal: October 2013 – Volume 35 – Issue 5 – p 16-21https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/Fulltext/2013/10000/Is_Postexercise_Muscle_Soreness_a_Valid_Indicator.2.aspx