DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness.
You may not have heard this term before, but if you’ve ever stepped foot into a gym, taken up a running routine, or even done a day’s worth of heavy yard work, you are likely very familiar with its effects.
DOMS is just the technical term for feeling really, really sore after a workout. It’s hard to forget how your butt felt the next few days after your boot camp instructor made you do a hundred air squats. You are sore! Really, really, really sore. In fact, sometimes DOMS can feel so bad you might think you’ve done permanent damage to your body! But why do muscles hurt so much after exercise in the first place? Is there a way to prevent them from aching so bad afterward? Will they always hurt this bad if you continue exercising? Is there a such a thing as “good soreness,” or should you worry about damaging your muscles permanently?
No pain, no gain, right? Or at least that’s what we’ve been told. But what if that pain is so bad it prevents us from working out again for three weeks? I’d be willing to guess that would have an adverse impact on our intended results. So why do we get sore in the first place? If you ask around, a lot of fitness minded people might have an answer for you. They may say that the soreness you feel can be attributed to the buildup of something called “Lactic Acid” in your muscles. This lactic acid builds up as you exercise, and afterward, the muscles remain sore until it has been flushed out by the lymphatic system. “But don’t worry,” they say, “As you continue to exercise your lymphatic system will become more efficient at removing lactic acid and other waste products causing the soreness.”
So it sounds like lactic acid that causes muscle pain, right?
Well, sort of.
Lactic acid can definitely cause muscle soreness. There’s no question about that. If you’ve ever sprinted as far and as fast as you can, maybe chasing after a bus, you’ve felt the burning effects of lactic acid. When your overly enthusiastic boot camp instructor yells at you to “Feel the burn,” what she is actually telling you is to push your energy system past the lactate threshold, causing a buildup of lactic acid in your muscles and inducing an incredibly uncomfortable burning sensation. Your muscles scream at you to stop, and eventually, you will have to. Congratulations! You have just flooded your system with a level of lactic acid your body is not able to process fast enough to keep up with the exercise producing it.
It must be the case, then, that if you don’t listen to your neon spandex wielding boot camp instructors’ cries to “Feel the burn,” you will keep yourself from feeling like you got hit by a dump truck for the next few days. No lactic acid buildup, no three days of horrifying muscle pain, right?
The problem is… well, the problem is this kind of thinking falls into what has been called “Bro science.” Bro science is named after the techniques gym-goers use to build muscle and increase fitness, and the understanding of the physiology behind the changes supported entirely by gym culture meme’s and almost never by science. While some bro science techniques do inevitably become backed up by scientific understandings of the purported results, you should listen to most bro science with caution. The lactic acid causing extended muscle soreness is one of them.
In fact, excess lactic acid caused by intense exercise will be entirely processed and returned to normal levels within one or two hours post exercise, regardless of the person’s fitness level.
If lactic acid doesn’t cause muscle soreness, what does?
There are two primary mechanisms believed to be the cause of DOMS. The first is an overabundance of calcium leftover within muscle cells following strenuous exercise. When this calcium breaks down, it results in inflammation of the muscle cells, inducing pain. The second cause is the whole reason we lift weights in the first place; When you lift weights, you cause micro trauma to the muscles fibers, stimulating the body to respond by rebuilding the fibers to a stronger, more resilient level.
Microtrauma of the muscle fibers also stimulates pain receptors within the muscle, and continue to do so while those tissues heal. You are, in effect, tearing your muscles down when you workout, so it should be expected that the local pain receptors would send signals to the brain that something is causing damage to the body. The continued and intensified pain at the exercised muscles has been thought by some researchers to be a way of reducing movement while the tissue heals, but this may not be the case as we will go into next when we talk about how to reduce the pain.
Is DOMS present in everyone who exercises? Is it just part of the deal when you set out on the path to creating your ideal body shape? Will you forever be bound to a life of agony anytime you get up from your chair or bend to pick something up? Are gym rats eternally in pain?
Of course not. Your body adapts to the pain by eventually reducing the inflammatory response, improving and strengthening the muscle fibers and their contractions, and dulling the sensation of pain produced from excessively stimulated pain receptors.The most interesting findings concerning DOMS is what seems to be the most efficient way of quickly reducing the symptoms.
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So what’s the most efficient way of recovering from DOMS?
Rest doesn’t help, or at least it doesn’t accelerate the recovery process. Three to four days is the normal amount of time required for the pain to go away if a person only rests.
Those NBA ice baths don’t seem to help either, thankfully, although they have anecdotal followers.
A massage, a hot bath, or a trip to the sauna may reduce your symptoms slightly, but the amount of reduction reportedly experienced is relatively small.
Anti-inflammatory medication or consuming curcumin from turmeric can help bring down the inflammation response, but this helps only slightly with the overall soreness.
Staying hydrated and adequate nutrition have also shown reduced symptoms of DOMS to some degree, but not the amount of time a person experiences those symptoms.
As it turns out, the best way to reduce the horrible sensation you feel after exercise and recover from the pain that made you never want to see another dumbbell again is to get back to the gym and do the same exercises all over again.
The more you exercise a muscle, the faster it responds and adapts to each bout of exercise. In fact, we call this the “Repeated bout effect.” Exercise studies have proven, time and time again, that the more frequently you exercise a muscle, especially during the initial phase of adopting an exercise routine, the faster your recovery and, as a result, the shorter amount of time you spend in the agony of DOMS.
It goes without saying, of course, that this does not apply if you are exerting yourself so hard you run yourself into the ground every workout. If you exercise at a sustainable intensity, however, returning to the gym shortly after and putting your sore muscles through controlled, loaded movements will significantly reduce your soreness symptoms.
This increased frequency doesn’t mean that if your legs are unbearably sore, you must do heavy squats right away, but you could jump on an elliptical machine or perform some bodyweight lunges. Over the weeks and months, your body will become more accustomed to exercise, and the soreness you experienced at the start of your journey will seem a distant memory. The secret is not to let the first few weeks of discomfort hold you back from getting back to the gym and doing your workouts.
I’ve seen too many people make a promise to themselves that they will get back in shape, only to wind up lying on their couch in pain the following week because they overdid it their first day in the gym. The better way forward, the more sustainable way, is to progress yourself over several weeks and months gradually. If you haven’t been to the gym for a while, then it’s not going to matter how much weight you lift or how hard you work as you are going to be sore either way. However, how debilitating that soreness is will depend on if you overdid it or not.
So ask yourself, what’s better? Utterly destroying yourself the first day and missing the next three weeks of workouts because you were too sore and stiff to go back, or starting off at a manageable intensity, then slowly increasing your effort over three weeks but having the strength and energy to get in each workout? You aren’t going to create a six pack in one workout, so take your time, do your workouts with deliberate, sustainable effort, and be conscious of what your body is saying to you.
Slow and steady wins the race. There is nothing in the world you can’t achieve so long as you possess tenacity. As the great Henry Rollins once said, “I don’t have talent. I have tenacity.”
As always, thank you so much for taking your time to read this article. If you got something from it, or you know someone who would benefit from this article, please feel free to share. If you have any questions or suggestions for future articles or videos, please leave me a message in the comments or reach out to me on social media!
And remember, with everything in life the secret to success is getting started. So get started!
About the author
I switched careers from a mechanic to a personal trainer and life coach after seeing the difference one made in the life of my mother. I watched as she transformed herself, changing her path in life to one that allowed for the enjoyment of what she loves most. Our family saw how powerful an impact her trainer had on her health and happiness, and we couldn't have been more grateful. From then on, I knew I wanted to help others take back their lives the same way her trainer had helped her.
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