You may have experienced it: a burning soreness or discomfort in your muscles the day or two after your training session. It’s called delayed onset muscle soreness (or DOMS), and it’s a familiar feeling for many exercisers. Some people consider it a sign of a good workout, and it’s often a source of pride for trainers and exercisers who practice exhaustive or extreme workouts. I’ll admit that I used to be disappointed if I didn’t get DOMS after my training, I thought it meant that I hadn’t worked hard enough. I was wrong. DOMS is not necessarily an indicator of an effective workout, and the lack of DOMS is not necessarily an indicator of an ineffective workout. In fact, for many people, DOMS can decrease motivation and interfere with performance in their next session.
How and Why Does DOMS Happen?
DOMS happens most often and most severely when you first perform a new exercise or movement, or when you suddenly increase the intensity of your exercise, and usually decreases with repeated exposure to the same exercise or level of intensity.
Eccentric contractions, which are the “negative” parts of an exercise when the muscles lower a weight while lengthening, are also known to be especially effective at causing DOMS. That’s the part of a bicep curl when you’re lowering the weight towards the floor, or when you’re lowering the bar down to your chest during a bench press. That part of an exercise is especially likely to cause soreness because the act of fighting resistance while lengthening causes muscle fibers (which grab onto and slide past each other to produce a muscle contraction), to be pulled apart rather than disconnecting from each other like they normally do.
It’s also most likely to happen at the point at which the muscle and tendon join together, since that’s the weakest point in the muscle and therefore the most susceptible to damage. You may have felt that yourself: if you have DOMS in your chest, it’s usually the most painful around the area where your chest meets your shoulder.
The specific mechanisms within the muscles that results in DOMS aren’t exactly known, but it’s thought to be the feeling of inflammation caused by damage (microscopic tears) to muscle fibers and connective tissue. It’s not, as is sometimes claimed, caused by lactic acid accumulation. Lactic acid does build up in the muscles during high intensity exercise but it’s cleared within 1-2 hours after exercise, whereas DOMS doesn’t usually occur until 24-48 hours after exercise.
As a side note: while many people think lactic acid causes fatigue, that’s not really the case, either. Despite both having the word “acid” in their names, lactic acid is not the direct cause of metabolic acidosis (which is an increase in the acidity of the blood resulting in the development of fatigue). Hydrogen ions produced during the same process that makes lactic acid are the real culprit behind metabolic acidosis. Lactic acid buildup is a normal and important part of the process that powers high intensity muscle contractions and is also used by the muscles as a fuel (Chatham, 2002).
In research studies investigating DOMS, participants perform specific exercises (usually with prolonged eccentric contractions) to purposely cause large amounts of muscle damage. Participants then rate their level of muscle soreness at different time points after the exercise, and measures of muscle damage, such as muscle strength, joint range of motion, limb circumference, blood markers, muscle biopsies, and/or MRI scans, are also collected. Although DOMS is thought to be related to exercise-induced muscle damage, subjective ratings of DOMS don’t appear to be a good indicator of the degree or severity of muscle damage (Schoenfeld and Contreras, 2013). In other words, some people report high levels of muscle soreness but have little muscle damage, while others have high levels of muscle damage but report low levels of muscle soreness. DOMS doesn’t seem to be a reliable way to measure how much muscle damage is caused by exercise.
Like many aspects of the exercise response, everybody’s DOMS response is different. The occurrence and severity of DOMS varies a lot, with some people experiencing very little soreness and others experiencing large amounts of soreness with the same training. Certain muscles also tend to be more susceptible to DOMS than others. Personally, I’m pretty prone to DOMS. When it happens it’s usually in my hamstrings and chest, and I almost never get it in my shoulders or quads.
DOMS Doesn’t Necessarily Indicate a Good Workout
While many people think that soreness and muscle damage is a sign of an effective workout, the research indicates that DOMS isn’t necessarily required for muscle growth. Muscle damage is a contributing factor in the processes that signal muscles to grow, but there are 2 other factors (mechanical tension and metabolic stress) that are also important in signaling growth. It’s possible to increase muscle growth without significant amounts of muscle damage (through those 2 other factors). It’s also possible to induce muscle damage without muscle growth. Long distance running, for example, has been shown to induce DOMS and muscle damage. Running, however, doesn’t cause significant muscle growth (Brentano and Kruel, 2011). Of course, the factors that stimulate muscle growth vary from person to person. Some people might require a lot of muscle damage to activate the signaling pathways that lead to muscle growth, while others may respond better to mechanical tension (lifting very heavy weights) or metabolic stress (performing moderate repetitions to muscle failure). That’s why I always emphasize the importance of trying different types of training and figuring out what works best for you.
On the other hand, DOMS and exercise-induced muscle damage can decrease your ability to train hard in your next session, which could impact your results. If you’re sore for days after each workout, you’ll probably have a hard time getting enough quality training every week to improve and reach your goals. DOMS may deter new exercisers from continuing their exercise program. New exercisers who aren’t used to DOMS may find it so unpleasant that they give up their training altogether. In extreme (and rare) cases, exercise-induced muscle damage may result in exertional rhabdomyolysis, which is a potentially serious condition that can lead to acute kidney failure.
How to Minimize Muscle Soreness
If you’re just starting a new exercise program, or you’re one of the unlucky people (like me) who are especially prone to DOMS, chances are you’ll be experiencing at least some muscle soreness after working out.
The best way to minimize that soreness is to take advantage of the “repeated bout effect”, which is when repeated practice of the same movement, even with light resistance, decreases the amount of DOMS experienced in subsequent sessions. Start slowly and progress gradually in each of your exercises. If you’re learning a new movement, start with a light weight or an easy variation to get your muscles and nervous system used to the specific stress of that exercise, then gradually increase the weight or difficulty over time.
Some Other Ways to Reduce Muscle Soreness
Many different methods have been suggested to prevent and treat DOMS. Some aren’t practical for the average exerciser because they require specialized equipment or expertise, including ultrasound, electrical current, and hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Others are more easily accessible, including stretching, cryotherapy (ice), massage, light exercise, and rest. The research indicates that some of those treatments are more effective than others.
Stretching: A common method for decreasing or preventing DOMS is stretching either immediately before or after exercise. However, most research studies haven’t found stretching to be effective at preventing or reducing the symptoms of DOMS. A review of 12 studies (one which included 2,377 participants) found that stretching before and/or after exercise didn’t improve perceived muscle soreness compared with a control condition (Herbert et al., 2011). One study found that once DOMS has already developed, stretching may be able to temporarily relieve soreness (Reisman et al., 2005), but most of the evidence indicates that stretching around the time of exercise isn’t effective in treating or preventing DOMS.
Cryotherapy: Applying ice to the skin or standing/lying in cold water (known as cold water immersion) after exercise is popular with athletes for increasing recovery. Most professional sports team and athletes have dedicated facilities with ice baths for athletes to use after exercise. You can get the same effect by filling up a bathtub or large bin with cold/icy water or applying ice packs or bags of ice. It’s been suggested that ice and cold water immersion reduces swelling and the inflammatory response, which could improve recovery and decrease DOMS. Research has found this type of therapy to be effective in reducing the symptoms of DOMS for about 24-96 hours after treatment, compared with a variety of control conditions, although not all studies have found a beneficial effect. According to a review of the literature, the average effective cooling temperature was 10 degrees C (50 degrees F; with a range of 5-13 degrees C or 41-55 degrees F), and the average duration was 13 minutes (between 10-24 minutes was shown to be effective). It’s generally recommended that ice or cold water immersion be applied immediately after exercise (Hohenauer et al., 2015).
Massage: Massage is often used by athletes and exercisers to decrease muscle soreness. It’s thought that massage can decrease inflammation and increase blood flow and circulation, bringing more nutrients to the affected area and removing the byproducts of muscle damage so recovery occurs faster. It has also been suggested that massage might decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increase levels of neurotransmitters that reduce pain and affect mood.
In terms of the effectiveness of massage for reducing DOMS, the results have been mixed. Most studies have found that massage reduces perceived levels of soreness but other studies have found that massage wasn’t effective, and there’s a lot of variation in the methods of the studies performed. A review of the effect of massage on DOMS concluded that massage received between 2-3 hours after exercise seems to be the most effective treatment time, but that the optimal dose and type of massage isn’t clear (Nelson, 2013). If you can get a massage, or use a massage chair or other self-massage tool, within a few hours after exercising, you may experience lower levels of DOMS. Experiment with different types and lengths of massage and see what works best for you.
Exercise: If you already have DOMS, light exercise can help relieve the symptoms but the effect is temporary. It’s thought that increased blood flow to the muscles can help remove waste products, that exercising the sore muscles might break up any adhesions that are causing pain, or that the release of endorphins might provide a pain-relieving effect (Cheung et al., 2003). To temporarily relieve the symptoms, do some light exercise that activates the affected muscles, or try some light cardio to increase blood flow and release endorphins.
Rest: While light exercise may reduce the symptoms, you should be careful when performing high intensity exercise with DOMS. Strength, shock absorption capacity, and coordination are thought to be compromised during the symptomatic period of DOMS (Vila-Cha et al, 2012), and it’s possible that your movement patterns will be altered during DOMS since your body will try to protect itself against the pain or discomfort. If you try to exercise with severe DOMS, you could get injured. That’s especially true for activities that require your muscles to absorb high levels of shock, like running and jumping, exercise that requires the generation of high levels of force, like very heavy weightlifting, or complex movement patterns, like Olympic lifts (cleans, snatches, etc.). If you’re scheduled to do those activities while you have moderate to severe DOMS, it might be best to postpone them until your soreness decreases. It’s up to you to decide how much DOMS is too much for you, but my general advice is that when you’re first starting out, take an extra day to rest when you have DOMS. When you get more training experience, your incidence and severity of DOMS should decrease, and once you’ve been exercising for a while you should also get better at listening to your body and assessing whether you need more time for recovery. If you’re not sure, take an extra day to be safe.
While some DOMS is normal, especially when starting a program or performing a new exercise, it shouldn’t hobble you. Remember, exercise should make you feel good and improve your life, and you won’t be able to perform your daily activities better if you can barely walk after each workout. The research says that DOMS isn’t a good indicator of muscle damage, and that muscle damage isn’t even necessarily required for muscle growth. DOMS can also interfere with your ability to train. That’s why I don’t recommend extreme or exhaustive workouts, the kind that tend to cause a lot of soreness. It’s much more effective to focus on quality movement and progressive overload than to chase DOMS and try to work yourself into the ground in each workout.