Many people mistakenly believe that unless you feel sore after a workout, you haven’t worked hard enough. The truth is muscle soreness has nothing to do with muscle growth or fat loss, and it is perfectly fine if you do not experience any soreness whatsoever.
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is caused by an inflammation of muscle tissue, resulting from microscopic tears in the muscle fibres. It usually rears its head 24-48 hours after a workout and can persist for at least 72 hours. Although DOMS is often a natural part of working out and not necessarily something that should be avoided, it is also not the badge of honour which most people assume it to be. DOMS is our bodies’ way of telling us that they need more time to recover.
While many people will feel intense muscle soreness the day after a workout, this provides no indication of a workout’s effectiveness. Similarly, just because an exercise once made you sore, it doesn’t mean it is any less effective if it no longer creates pain. If your DOMS is so intense that it prevents you from completing your next workout, you have pushed yourself too far.
Extensive studies have proven that there is no correlation between muscle soreness and protein synthesis, or between muscle soreness and long-term muscle growth. Muscle soreness simply occurs when you have caused enough damage to aggravate the connective tissues. It is usually a by-product of shocking your body with a brand new exercise, or executing an exercise which causes more muscle soreness than others. Exercises which stress the eccentric portion of a lift, such as straight-legged deadlifts, will always cause more muscle soreness than those that do not.
Any personal trainer can make their client feel very sore, but that’s not what makes a good PT. What do you think is best for your muscles and goals: performing a 50 rep set of bicep curls with barbie weights and not being able to lift your arms afterwards, or hitting a heavy three rep max deadlift and not feeling any soreness whatsoever? Hopefully you chose the second option.
DOMS tends to decrease in severity the longer someone has been training, regardless of how they vary their exercises or volume. The same is true for the frequency with which one trains, and whether a body part split or upper/lower/full body program is followed. Someone that follows a bodybuilding program (with a dedicated chest day, for example) will generally feel more soreness as they are placing that particular muscle group under tension for longer. When you aim to absolutely annihilate your legs during your one leg session per week, you will likely limp around like an accident victim compared to someone who trains their legs moderately two to three days per week.
For intermediate to advanced lifters, pain becomes a sign that something is wrong and it is something most try to avoid. Pain may be caused by an inadequate warm-up, over-exertion, insufficient recovery, or poor technique. If a more advanced lifter is sore, they will often delay any scheduled workouts until they are properly recovered. DOMS can therefore not only affect performance but also motivation.
These days, I generally only feel DOMS if I’m doing a brand new exercise or one I haven’t done for months/years (hello, push ups). Even when I did my powerlifting meet, I didn’t suffer from bad DOMS (strongwoman is a different beast, as I usually push myself beyond the pain barrier and use less-than-stellar form to squeeze out extra reps). Whenever I feel pain, it is not a good sign. Lately I’ve been having a bit of knee and shin pain, so I know I need to dial back on the running.
Beginners unfortunately don’t have this luxury, as most exercises will make them hurt, but it is important that they note the difference between good pain and bad pain. A “good” pain is general muscle soreness, where you may feel sore to the touch or wince when completing certain movements. “Bad” pain, on the other hand, will be very uncomfortable, persistent and often sharp and shooting. An injury usually causes pain immediately after a workouts, whereas DOMS takes at least a day to come into effect (hence the “delayed” part of DOMS!). Generally speaking, exercise should make you feel good, and not have you grimacing while trying to complete your regular daily activities.
So how do you determine whether a workout was effective or not? Simply ask yourself whether you achieved what you set out to. Did you hit the prescribed weights and number of sets and repetitions? Did you feel challenged by the workout, yet able to move through it comfortably? If you are just getting started with lifting, make sure you ease into it and don’t try to do too much too quickly.
If you are suffering from serious DOMS, my favourite strategies for speeding up the healing process are foam rolling and gentle cardio. Don’t be afraid to work out with DOMS – you likely won’t be able to lift as much as you would be able to normally, but increasing your blood flow to the affected area will help.
Do you suffer from DOMS regularly? Has it reduced as you have progressed along your exercise journey?