A conversation with a client today has prompted me to write on the subject of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, also known as DOMS.
She commented (not complained) that despite a good shoulders workout on Monday she had not had any DOMS in the post workout period.I replied that shoulders are a commonly an area that people do not experience DOMS, but would investigate further.
What is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness?
DOMS, also called muscle fever, is the pain and stiffness felt in muscles,< several hours to days, after unaccustomed or unusually strenuous exercise.
The soreness is felt most strongly 24 to 72 hours after the exercise. It is thought to be caused by eccentric (lengthening) exercise, which causes micro trauma to the muscle fibres. After such exercise, the muscle adapts rapidly to prevent muscle damage, and thereby soreness, if the same exercise is repeated.
What does DOMS tell us about the effectiveness of our training (and is that good or bad?)
The short answer
DOMS is not a good or bad thing inherently, because it could be a positive or a negative signal. It could be associated with a great workout that stimulated muscle growth, or it could be a sign of over-training or inadequate recovery (not to mention the pain can be debilitating and interfere with subsequent workouts or even activities of daily life).
For that reason, I wouldn’t recommend considering DOMS a sign of a good workout or a sign that muscle growth is on the way, only as a sign that muscle damage occurred during your workout.
The long answer
….based on current science, plus a few opinions of my own.
DOMS is caused by intense exercise, especially resistance training such as weight lifting. The eccentric part of a resistance exercise (where you lower the weight and the muscle lengthens) has been linked to greater DOMS compared to concentric movements and isometric contractions.
Exercise physiologists have known for many years that eccentric muscle actions lead to more DOMS.They also have a pretty good idea why. Overall, eccentric training causes greater muscle fibre and connective tissue disruption and greater release of enzymes associated with muscle damage. Muscles performing eccentric actions also rely more on type II muscle fibres, which are more susceptible to damage than type I muscles fibres during eccentric actions.
Damage occurs not only to the muscle fibres themselves, but also to the muscle cell membrane, known as the sarcolemma. The actual pain felt as DOMS may not be the muscle fibre damage itself, but may be the swelling and inflammation that comes with it.
That doesn’t sound good…..?
At first, the idea that you are damaging your muscles by weight training and other intense forms of exercise doesn’t sound like a good thing at all. However, breaking down or damaging the muscle structures is actually a part of the muscle growth and strength-building process. You break it down and re-build it, bigger and stronger than before. Feeling soreness after the workout may be an indicator of that breaking down and re-building process.
Brad Schoenfeld, a prominent researcher on the mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy, author of The MAX Muscle plan, and a former competitive bodybuilder says:
“A certain amount of soreness may indirectly benefit muscle development. The response can be likened to the acute inflammatory response to infection. Once the body perceives the damage, immune cells (neutrophils, macrophages and so on) migrate to the damaged tissue in order to remove cellular debris to help maintain the fibre’s ultrastructure. In the process, the body produces signalling molecules called cytokines that activate the release of growth factors involved in muscle development. In this roundabout way, localized inflammation – a source of DOMS – leads to a growth response that in effect, strengthens the ability of muscle tissue to withstand future muscle damage. Adaptation!”
I personally suggest that a moderate amount of DOMS – a soreness in the muscles you last worked, that’s noticeable but not debilitating in any way, is perfectly fine, provided you had a good workout and with muscle growth, provided all the supporting factors are in place for muscle growth to occur. Those include recovery, adequate surplus caloric intake and adequate protein
A) You can get sore and not experience growth or strength increase.
B) You can experience growth and strength increase having not been sore.
You might want to read those two points again, and pause to let them sink in if they didn’t click together instantly the first time.
In other words, getting sore after a workout is NOT a prerequisite for seeing muscle growth.
C) You can be so extremely sore that it indicates a degree of muscle damage you cannot recover from, which may mean no growth and decreased strength.
If You Stop Getting Sore, Have Your Workouts Stopped Working?
If you ‘re wondering whether your workouts are no longer working if you are no longer sore, the answer is NO, or at least, not necessarily.
If you are still making progress on the same workout
- strength is increasing
- improvements in body composition, muscle size
Your workout is working, isn’t it?
If you’re one of those individuals who never seems to get sore, the same principle applies.
Hence why you should not use delayed onset muscle soreness as your sole indicator of workout effectiveness. The sign of effective workouts is whether you made visible and measurable improvements in muscle growth and strength.
In other words, getting sore is not the goal – GETTING RESULTS IS THE GOAL.
Was your workout effective?
Did you gain muscle or strength?
Do you look better?
If so, your workout was effective whether you were sore or not.
If someone is bothered by never being sore, yet they are making progress, that infatuation with soreness is psychological.
DOMS should be viewed as a side effect of strenuous workouts rather than the goal of a workout.
Having said that I repeat what I said earlier, which is backed up by the science:
DOMS does correlate – fairly reliably – with good workouts, at least when the goal is hypertrophy or bodybuilding.
One more thing is good to know about DOMS:
Individual responses vary dramatically. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness usually begins as early as 8 to 12 hours after training, increases for 24 to 48 hours and peaks 48 to 72 hours afterward, then begins to subside. But studies show that in some individuals, it can last 8 to 10 days! Depending on the severity, eccentric muscle strength can actually decrease during this period.
Some people seem especially prone to excessive muscle soreness (part of your body type/genetics). There have been cases studied where recovery was not complete for 26 days. In the most extreme scenarios, three percent of individuals may suffer from rhabdomyolysis after an extraordinarily strenuous exercise bout. This is a degeneration of the muscle cells, producing myalgia, muscle tenderness, weakness, swelling and dark-colored urine. In addition to the pain, this causes a loss in the muscle’s ability to produce force.
The Bottom Line?
You can view light or moderate amounts of DOMS as a good thing, or at least as a normal thing. Let’s face it, in a “twisted” kind of way, we resistance training people not only don’t mind a little soreness, we kind of like it! It gives us some very immediate feedback that we did something, probably good. I could also argue that being able to “feel” your muscles in between workouts, has some psychological benefits too.
However, it should also be clear that the goal of your workouts is not to see how sore you can get. The goal of your workouts is to gain muscle, get stronger and get in shape. If you could achieve that goal without ever feeling sore, for some people, that would be the best outcome of all. For most of us, however, we need to understand what DOMS is and get used to tolerating a little bit or even (oddly), enjoying it.
So to get back to my client and her shoulder workout..
She is not alone. On searching this subject I confirmed my original response that people rarely have DOMS after training shoulders. Biceps tend to be the same way as well, but not quite to the same extent. I have not established why but will investigate further at a later point.
She has however gained strength and tone in her shoulders. She used to press 5kg and today was push pressing an 8kg kettlebell. I believe is happy with her shoulder workouts despite the lack of DOMS.
Rachel Law is a personal fitness trainer based in New Malden, Surrey. Qualifications: ActivIQ Level 3 Personal Training; Burrell Education Pregnancy Exercise Prescription; Burrell Education Advanced Pregnancy Wellness Practitioner; Burrell Education Advanced Post Natal Exercise Prescription; Burrell Education 3rd Age Women Optimal Health and Nutrition; Burrell Education Peri Natal Athlete; Burrell Education Pelvic Flow and Freedom; Olympic Weight Lifting; Premier Global Kettlebells; FIE Level Assessment and Mentoring