If you’ve been training for any amount of time, and you’ve experienced muscle soreness (DOMS), you’re probably thinking, “What else do I need to know?” Well throughout my training time I’ve picked up a few things that have helped, and surprised me, in regard to DOMS.
Anyway, as I’m wont to do, I’d like to put my 2 cents in, whether you want them or not, and share some of my experiences with this dreaded soreness that’s incapacitated me a time or three.
What Are DOMS?
DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) is the soreness you experience 1 to 2 days after an especially vigorous or unfamiliar workout. While it’s not completely clear why this happens, there are several theorized causes that range from microtears in the muscles, to lactic acid buildup.
While the lactic acid theory is just about debunked by now, science continues to explore the subject of DOMS. Science is finding that DOMS might actually be due to a combination of things: the aforementioned microtears as well as inflammation, metabolic stress, and dehydration among them.
Though we cannot exactly define the why, I believe we can all agree DOMS are a pain in the butt. And legs, and shoulders, and back . . .
A Job Well Done?
Having DOMS can be a motivating feeling, I know. Unless you feel like you’ve been run over by a bus, that is.
The soreness in your muscles lets you know exactly which muscles you worked and just how hard. It’s motivating because you feel like you’ve done a great job, and so you look forward to doing it again.
What most people mistakenly believe, however, is that just because you’re sore that you, without a doubt, had an epic workout, worthy of gains everywhere. You get a gain, you get a gain, you get a gain!
Not exactly. It’s really just your body’s way of telling you it’s not familiar with the stress you exposed it to, whether it be due to a new exercise, or more intensity than what you’re used to.
Exercises with an emphasis on the eccentric portion of the movement (stretching/lengthening) will generally produce some level of DOMS no matter what.
One reason Muscle Confusion might be so popular could be due to the DOMS one experiences after all those new movements.
After all, it’s hard not to think you’ve done an amazing job when the day after a workout you feel that motivating soreness upon waking. But in reality, it may not have been a better workout, just a different one.
The experience of DOMS does not necessarily a great workout make.
It’s Just Like Riding a Horse
The name of the game here is frequency. As I said, your muscles become sore when they are not accustomed to certain workouts or exercises, but they can also become sore from a workout you’ve done a million times. This is due to the frequency of your workouts, or lack thereof.
Are you one of those people that always suffers debilitating soreness after leg day? Okay, I will grant you, leg day can bring on the DOMS for just about anyone, under any circumstances. But there is something you can do to avoid outfitting the bathroom with handrails to help you on and off the toilet. And that something is: increase your workout frequency.
You know what it’s like when you skip workouts for a couple weeks, or a month, maybe even six, and then start working out again? Ugh. Me too. I dread the soreness that is to come and vow to never veer from my training schedule again. But sometimes, you know, that doesn’t work out because life and stuff.
The same goes for setting your training days too far apart. It’s often recommended to train each muscle group just once a week. In my experience, this didn’t work for me.
When I was training legs just once per week I would be ungodly sore, so much so that I didn’t look forward to training legs. After doing some reading I found that if I increased my workout frequency, the soreness would ease up.
So, I started training legs twice a week and the soreness factor was cut in half. I always have some level of soreness when I train legs, that’s just how it is for some people. But not having to hobble around anymore like I’d ridden a horse all day was amazing!
More DOMS = Gainz Thru Tha Roof (Right?)
It’s often thought the level of DOMS you experience directly correlates to the amount of muscle gains you’ll see. While DOMS might contribute in some way to building muscle (which remains to be proven), that’s not exactly true.
When it comes to muscle growth, our bodies respond better to higher frequency. I’m not talking daily workouts or anything. Your muscles need rest in order to grow. But if you wait a whole week between training sessions, you’ll leave valuable gains on the table. Working a muscle group 2-3 times per week is ideal for maintaining a balance between training and rest, resulting in maximum muscle growth.
So, think about it this way: The occurrence of muscle growth is more favorable with higher workout frequency. But muscle soreness is reduced with higher workout frequency. Going by this, does more soreness=more gainz?
The main takeaway here is, experiencing DOMS is not necessary in order for your muscles to grow.
Why are DOMS worse for some people than they are for others? The answer is genetics. Some folks are just predisposed to experiencing more soreness.
So, don’t hate your workout buddy because they don’t waddle after leg day. And don’t strut around thinking you put in more work than them just because you can’t lift your arms up over your head to wash your hair. They can’t help it.
Is There a Treatment for DOMS?
As I said before, not a whole lot of definitive evidence exists in regard to DOMS. Neither is there a step by step guide to avoiding or treating DOMS. Aside from upping your training frequency, there are some things you can try that might help anyway. These are things I’ve tried and had great success with.
Get Moving – Huh? Seriously. When you’re suffering from DOMS the last thing you want to do is get up off the couch, let alone do a workout. But if you do something active (walking, cardio, a mini-workout), the increased blood flow that results can help ease your pain. In fact, you do not have to skip your regularly scheduled workout because of DOMS. Unless you are legitimately debilitated by pain, you can certainly get on with your normal training schedule.
Sometimes just a bit of vigorous housework is all I need to ease DOMS. It’s getting started that’s the hard part. But partway through whatever activity I’m doing, I find I feel a bit better, and not so stiff. The next day the DOMS are virtually gone.
Drink More Water – Water seems to be the answer to everything health-related. That and sleep. And for good reason. I don’t know that the water exactly flushes out anything that is causing DOMS (as is commonly thought), but hydrating the muscles is certainly beneficial.
I notice a big difference in the severity of DOMS when I don’t get enough water. So I make an effort to drink before, during and after my workout.
Eat All the Foods – Okay, maybe not all the food. I have personally noticed a difference in DOMS when I am dieting vs. when I am eating at maintenance or trying to gain muscle. The soreness tends to be more intense when I’m cutting calories.
Heat Application – When I’m sore due to intense training, I always keep a heating pad close by. It eases the pain, but I can’t claim it cures DOMS. The same with a hot shower. It’s great for easing the pain as well.
There are other things you can try, but I’ve not noticed a huge difference, myself. They are not proven to ease or cure DOMS, but they might work for you.
Warming up Pre-Workout
A Silver Lining?
You can use DOMS to your advantage by noting which muscles are impacted more by which exercises, almost like a barometer of sorts. As we become accustomed to different exercises it can be hard to remember exactly where you’ve felt the soreness before.
For instance, I never could find an exercise that targets that lovely area just under the butt, leading into the hamstring (glute/ham tie-in). Not until I found Bulgarian Split Squats, that is. Even though they don’t cause the soreness they used to, I keep them in my routine because I know they will continue to do great things for my backside.
The same can be true of other muscle groups. Are you trying to target your upper pecs, or lower? You could be trying to build your outer quads a bit more, or focusing on the width of your back as opposed to the thickness. Because different exercises hit muscles from different angles, your newfound barometer comes in quite handy in these cases.
Hurts So Good
While we don’t know exactly what we’re up against here, we do know that DOMS are indeed a fact of our lifting lives.
Instead of assuming your DOMS = A Job Well Done, take note of the other aspects of your training sessions. If you know you’ve put 100% into your workouts, complete with weight training increases, or intense cardio, then pat yourself on the back.
If you already have some decent training time under your belt but you’re still experiencing more than a little DOMS, take a look at the frequency of your workouts. Adjust your training schedule and waddle no more.
Don’t assume you will gain more muscle because you’re sore. Just continue to employ progressive overload, eat, and rest, and those muscle gains will come.
Stay active, drink more water, and apply heat when necessary to ease DOMS.
Use your DOMS barometer to your advantage and focus on the exercises that will benefit you, and your goals.
Continue to go after your training goals. Don’t let those evil little DOMS keep you from getting what you want. Just like fine wine, and yourself, DOMS get better with time.