Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is that feeling of muscle soreness that most of us have experienced usually 24-48 hours after a hard workout. It usually lasts for up to 96 hours, but it is not uncommon if it lasts even longer. If you haven’t trained deadlifts in a while, you’re sure to feel it for the next week.
It’s that feeling of pain, tenderness, and stiffness that some of us love because it makes us feel as though we’ve accomplished something, but for others, it's the reason why we struggle to get out of bed the next morning. It's important that you can identify the difference between DOMS and severely problematic pain—so understanding your own body is key.
The severity of DOMS can be the result of a few things, including your familiarity with an exercise, the intensity of exercise, how much eccentric loading there is, how much a muscle has been stretched under resistance and the angle of muscle contraction.
DOMS and the Relationship with Your Workout
For those newcomers to the concept of working out, it’s no wonder why the likelihood of quitting is so much higher when you’re waking up every day sore. Who wants that kind of anxiety knowing that after every workout you’ll be feeling this way.
By understanding DOMS, however, you’ll understand that this isn’t necessary. If you’re a trainer, understand how managing a client's DOMS will allow them to achieve a better “flow” state within their training, and know that because of this, they'll be more likely to succeed in the long game.
Nearly all of us have experienced DOMS, but the underlying mechanisms behind post-exercise soreness are somewhat of a mystery. Although research has come up with a number, or combination of mechanisms responsible, no single, clear explanation is available.
To date, mechanical damage of the muscle tissue, inflammation, and swelling, and an increase in free radical production have all been suggested to contribute to the symptoms associated with DOMS. Let’s delve in.
The response to localized muscle damage is one that can be compared to a muscle injury and the inflammatory response to an infection. A large rate of tissue breakdown occurs during exercises where a large relative weight is being lifted (i.e., higher percentage repetition maximum).
Furthermore, emphasizing the eccentric component of an exercise, performing a stretch of the muscle while it’s being worked, or overloading the eccentric portion of the exercise by using a greater weight on the eccentric phase, can produce high amounts of mechanical tension and tissue breakdown.
The result is inevitable soreness the day after the workout. If you haven't experienced this type of soreness, try doing a few sets of controlled eccentric exercises, or “negatives,” in your workouts to see what I mean.
Photography by Bev Childress of Fort Worth, Texas
When muscles passively stretch (stretching a muscle without actively tensing it) this is what’s referred to as passive elastic tension. On the other hand, if you place tension on a muscle by isometrically (statically) flexing it as hard as possible it becomes what is referred to as active tension. During both types of stretch high amounts of mechanical tension are formed.
Taking a muscle through its full range of motion and lengthening, or “stretching” it while also using resistance, produces a large amount of mechanical damage. For example, stretching the pectoral muscles fully during dumbbell flyes can often trigger large amounts of post-exercise soreness. Mechanical tension is high during these movements because high eccentric force is being produced by the muscle in a lengthened state.
Inflammation, Swelling, and Free Radicals
Certain forms of exercise, including eccentric exercise in particular, can result in injury to the muscle cell membrane, setting off an inflammatory response that leads to prostaglandin and leukotriene production.
Leukotrienes are responsible for controlling the inflammation process and prostaglandins (specifically PGE2) directly causes the pain sensation associated with DOMS by making certain pain receptors more sensitive. Leukotrienes also increase vascular permeability and attract neutrophils to the area of damage.
In layman’s terms this means that molecules can pass through capillaries easier and a build-up of white blood cells occurs. These neutrophils generate free radicals which can also increase damage to the cell membrane. Swelling results from the movement of cells and fluid from the bloodstream in to the spaces between the muscle tissues with inflammation, and can contribute to the sensation of pain.
It may not sound like it but this is a good thing. We want this initial response to be happening, so any forms of supplementation that are meant to fight free radical damage around workouts could actually be dampening the effectiveness of the workout.
Supplement companies sometimes add antioxidants such as vitamin C to their pre and post-workout drinks—but this practice may need some rethinking. Unless you’re an athlete and next-day recovery is your goal, then bask in the post-exercise inflammatory response and enjoy the long-term gains. Save the antioxidants for another time in the day.
Is DOMS Good or Bad?
In short, feeling DOMS doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve had a good workout. It’s more of a sign of the type of workout you’ve had, how unaccustomed to the workout you could have been, or the types of exercises you were using. You’ll also find that the more experienced you are in the gym, or in your sport, the less muscle soreness you’ll experience over time as your body becomes more accustomed to the exercise.
To play devil’s advocate, however, the types of exercise DOMS can be associated with, and in particular, producing large amounts of mechanical damage, can lead to greater increases in muscle size, so a feeling of post-exercise soreness may be expected in workouts where maximal growth and strength development are a goal.
The cellular swelling and inflammation associated with DOMS can also be of use in small doses, so any strategy you use to reduce these (i.e., use of anti-inflammatory drugs, treatment with ice or compression) should be carefully considered and not be overdone. DOMS is completely normal, so suck it up and work it off!
- Does DOMS affect strength and performance?
Performance should not be affected by feelings of soreness, and feeling sore is not necessarily a sign that your body has not fully recovered. DOMS can only affect performance (e.g., how much weight you can lift, how fast you can run etc.) through more psychological reasons, as feelings of soreness can often be uncomfortable. There are no physiological reasons, however.
- Can I train when I’m sore?
Yes, providing you feel as though your body has recovered and your performance won’t be hindered.
- How long should D.O.M.S usually last?
Usually for around 96 hours, but it’s not uncommon for it to last longer. You’ll often find that if you get moving, and get the blood flowing again, it’ll go much quicker.
- What exercises typically produce the most soreness?
Exercises that emphasise stretching the muscle under contraction (such as chest flyes, deep squats, and stiff-legged deadlifts), exercises that emphasise or overload the eccentric/downward portion of a lift (slow negatives, forced reps, partner assisted reps, 2/1 method, etc.), and any exercise you may not be accustomed to.
- What does it mean if I never feel sore after a workout?
There could be a number of reasons, but as previously mentioned the lack of feeling sore isn’t a sign that you’ve not worked hard enough. People more experienced with exercise typically find it hard to achieve that feeling of soreness after a workout and almost relish the feeling of DOMS when it comes about, whereas novices are typically sore as a result of even a few sets of exercise.
- Is feeling D.O.M.S the sign of a good workout?
Absolutely not, it’s only a sign that you may have done something new, your workout may have involved a lot of eccentric lifting, or you are new to exercise. Just remember that when it comes to a well-designed progressive program “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a complete myth.