You've worked hard in the gym, and your body has decided to punish you. It doesn't seem fair, but the stiffness and ache of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is something that almost everyone who trains will experience, not just once, but on a semi-regular basis. Let's take a look at what causes it, and what we can do about it.
DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) Symptoms
DOMS is not to be confused with acute muscle soreness, which kicks in during or immediately after exercise and (hopefully) fades after the activity has ceased. As the name suggests, DOMS manifests 12-24 hours after exercise, peaks at around 48 hours post workout, and in all but the most severe cases, is gone within the week. and is generally felt as an aching, burning, or stiffness in the muscles that have been trained. DOMS can reduce flexibility, mobility, and the power that the muscle is able to exert. Pain is generally not felt when the muscle is at rest, only upon movement. Paradoxically, after an initial spike in pain, exercise can temporarily alleviate symptoms of DOMS (5).
Is DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) Good or Bad?
That's a good question. Scientists still don't know the exact mechanism behind DOMS, but it's thought to involve both mechanical and metabolic stress. One theory is that the microscopic tearing or splaying of muscle and connective tissue causes pressure on the sensors that feel pain. This physical change to the muscle, in addition to the release of enzymes and other compounds from damaged cells, and the effects of lactic acid, are thought to stimulate the body's inflammatory response (1).
DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) and Muscle Building
So does DOMS help you build muscle? Yes, but mostly no. There are a number of established ways to promote muscle hypertrophy – tension, stress and damage. While DOMS is an indicator of muscle damage, it is believed that the amount of pain experienced bears no relation to the amount of damage, or the corresponding hypertrophic response (2). On top of this, DOMS can put you out of action or leave you performing below your peak for up to a week, so you're missing out on training opportunities.
That said, DOMS is a pretty benign condition, and some people, particularly those who have a schedule where they have a few days between training body parts, consider DOMS a good thing. The feeling of having worked hard can be of psychological benefit, and some people can use it as a guide to judge their intensity of their workout (3).
Exercising with DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness)
As discusssed, exercise can reduce the symptoms of DOMS in the short term, and in theory, aerobic exercise should increase blood flow which will provide nutrients and remove metabolic products at an enhanced rate over a passive or sedentary recovery, but there is very little research on the effects of exercise of DOMS affected muscles. One study showed that light aerobic exercise after a DOMS-inducing eccentric exercise protocol enhanced isometric torque, but did not hasten nor hinder recovery (4). The general recommendation is to avoid heavy resistance training using the affected muscle group for 1-2 days after the injury was sustained (2).
Is there a Treatment or Cure for DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness)?
There isn't a treatment or cure for DOMS, and the best way to get around the pain and stiffness is by avoiding it in the first place. Always ease into new exercises, and increase intensity slowly.
- Always start at an appropriate level for your fitness and strength. Not only will this help you avoid DOMS, but people who go out too hard are more likely to overdo things to the point of injury, become disilusioned through lack of progress, and ultimately find their workouts unenjoyable.
- Start any new exercise with low weight and high reps. Gradually increase weight and decrease reps as your body adapts.
- You will need to kick it up a notch to make gains, be these in fitness, strength or size. Follow the rule of ten – never increase a parameter, be it weight, reps, or even speed or distance, by more than 10% in a week.
- It's impossible to avoid eccentric exercise, which is the cause of DOMS, but it is possible to keep correct form, which will minimise its occurrence.
DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) Recovery
The recovery period after exercise is very important for avoiding DOMS, and there are a number of things you can do.
- Use a BCAA supplement – BCAAs, with or without Taurine, have been shown to be very effective in reducing the severity and duration of DOMS, speeding up recovery, and promoting muscle growth.
- Taking a recovery protein after a workout – Anabolic BCAAs tell the body to repair the muscles, but a full complement of amino acids are needed to make that happen. Replenishing muscle glucose prevents the body from breaking down muscle protein for energy.
- Antioxidants – These mitigate the free radical damage that can come from strenuous exercise and have been shown to ease the symptoms of DOMS.
- Dose up on Omega-3 – Omega-3 essential fatty acids have strong anti-inflammatory properties, which can prevent DOMS from taking full hold.
DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) Relief
If you're suffering, there are a few things that can help
- Hot compress
- NSAIDs like Ibuprofen or Voltaren
- Sports Massage
But the tried and true way to get rid of DOMS is time.
(1) Cheung K, Hume P, Maxwell L. Delayed onset muscle soreness : treatment strategies and performance factors. Sports Med. 2003;33(2):145-64.
(2) Kuipers H. Exercise-induced muscle damage. Int J Sports Med. 1994 Apr;15(3):132-5.
(3) Schoenfeld, Brad J. MSc, CSCS, CSPS; Contreras, Bret MA, CSCS.Is Postexercise Muscle Soreness a Valid Indicator of Muscular Adaptations? Strength & Conditioning Journal: October 2013 - Volume 35 - Issue 5 - p 16–21
(4) James J. Tufano, et. al., "Effect Of Aerobic Recovery Intensity On Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness And Strength," J. Strength and Cond. Res., 26(10), 2777-2782 (2012)
(5) Armstrong RB. Mechanisms of exercise-induced delayed onset muscular soreness: a brief review. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1984 Dec;16(6):529-38.