Almost all lifters have experienced some sort of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Waking up a morning or two after a hard training session and it is a struggle to stand up or sit down with out more effort than usual. Perhaps, your legs remind you of how difficult simply walking is. Sound familiar?
My client almost resorted to calling 911 because he couldn’t get up from the toilet the day after attending one of my group exercise classes. This was probably in part that we train hard. However, he hadn’t exercised in years and in his enthusiasm in trying to keep up with the class, he caused himself a severe case of DOMS.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author. Excessive muscle soreness could also be a sign of other conditions. If you are experiencing excessive muscle soreness, please seek advice from a medical professional. Excessive swelling, discolored urine, and abdominal pain after training could be signs of more serious conditions; if you are experiencing these, please seek medical attention.
[Related: 5 Supplements That Might Help With Muscle Soreness]
What Is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
DOMS is connective tissue microtrauma as a result of inflammation caused by microscopic tears. While most exercise can cause DOMS, exercises with a high-intensity eccentric contractions play a greater role per the British Journal of Sports Medicine.(1)
Although it depends on the person, DOMS usually kicks in approximately six to eight hours post exercise and peaks around the 48-hour mark. DOMS happens mostly in the legs, but it occurs anywhere in the body that has been subjected to unfamiliar or intense exercise.
Does DOMS Help Build Muscle?
There are three known mechanisms for building muscle.
- Mechanical Tension — load
- Metabolic Stress —muscle pump
- Muscle Damage — soreness
Although two and three have been discounted in certain circles, lifting heavy weights for more reps or mechanical tension (load) is certainly the biggest driver of hypertrophy. If you’re doing one right, you’re going to get a little of 2 and 3 no matter what, but chasing DOMS in your training doesn’t always mean you’re building more muscle. Sometimes it causes you more harm than good.
A little soreness is okay, but more is not better. Extreme muscle soreness can decrease the force producing capacity of the muscle, which can have negative effects on performance in future training. Training frequency plays an important role in building muscle. If you’re too sore to train, what’s the point?
Motivation levels can also take a hit. Who wants to train when you can’t move pain-free? It goes without say that pain and lack of motivation are not conducive to long-term hypertrophy goals.
Four Ways To Reduce DOMS
Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic wand to wave that can make DOMS disappear. However, there are things you can do to improve your recovery and reduce the DOMS effect. If you know from experience you’re prone to DOMS, choose one or more of the following tips to potentially help alleviate it.
Protein is not only essential for hypertrophy, but drinking protein during and after exercise has been shown to reduce DOMS.(2) Stimulating protein synthesis during and after your training gives the muscles the fuel they need to repair, rebuild, and reduce inflammation.
Drinking coffee an hour before you train can reduce muscle soreness, fatigue and can increase performance. Caffeine has pain killing properties which is why it’s an ingredient in some over the counter medications. However, you might consider not consuming caffeine post workout.
In one study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, nine low caffeine males were either given caffeine or a placebo and performed five sets of ten preacher curls, the last set being to failure. The ones who took caffeine had less soreness after 48 hours than the ones who took the placebo.(3)
2. Foam Rolling
Foam rolling, or myofascial release, helps relieve tension in the muscle connective tissue. Research has shown that foam rolling for 20 minutes 24 and 48 hours after a tough training helps reduce DOMS and improves muscle performance.(4)
[Related: Best Foam Roller Exercises for Runners]
You should make foam rolling a part of your warm-up, cool-down, and on days you don’t work out when you’re pushing the boundaries of performance.
3. Aerobic Exercise
Increasing blood flow with aerobic exercise can help to speed up the inflammatory process and improve your muscle recovery. Another study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research had twenty-six women split into three different groups. Each group performed a DOMS-inducing exercise of knee extensors followed either with low intensity cycling, moderate-intensity cycling, or seated rest. Those in the moderate intensity group recovered faster and regained strength quicker than the other two groups.(5)
Although the study involved cycling, you can reap the benefit of an aerobic recovery using a cardiovascular mode you enjoy. Here are a few programming suggestions you can do after a tough training session.
Spend ten minutes on the bike at a moderate intensity, ten minutes on a treadmill at a speed of three to four miles per hour (use the incline function for intensity), and ten 10 minutes on the rowing machine — also at a moderate intensity.
Three Minute Aerobic Intervals
These can done on any machine you like. Warm up for four minutes, then proceed to the following:
- Three minutes of aerobic intervals — any that your machine of choice provides.
- Three minutes of active rest (very low intensity, but still moving).
Repeat three to five times before cooling down for four minutes.
Simple Programming Tips
Eccentric contractions are essential for strength, but are the leading cause of DOMS. Awesome exercises such as squats, rows, chin-ups, lunges. and Romanian deadlifts all have an eccentric component. Totally eliminating them to avoid DOMS is not a good idea, but there are a few simple things you can do to minimize DOMS when using these types of exercises:
- Progress slowly and don’t take huge weight jumps from one training session to the next. Increase by five or ten pounds pounds instead of fifteen or twenty.
- Take some time to cool down after your training.
- Foam rolling, stretching, or breathing exercises.
Avoid (when you can) pairing weighted eccentric heavy exercises together too often. For example, barbell squats with a weighted lunge. Instead pair eccentric heavy exercises with an active recovery exercise or one that trains mobility — bench press with a side lying windmill or foam rolling the upper back.
DOMS is a product of hard training or doing something that’s unfamiliar. Some wear DOMS as a badge of honor and chase it, thinking it means more muscle, but more DOMS is not a good thing. Instead, when you know you’re about to be sore, be proactive with your recovery so movement is not painful the next day.
- M J Cleak 1, R G Eston “Muscle soreness, swelling, stiffness and strength loss after intense eccentric exercise.” Br J Sports Med.1992 Dec;26(4): 267-72.doi: 10.1136
- Michael J. Saunders et. al., “Consumption Of An Oral Carbohydrate-protein Gel Improves Cycling Endurance And Prevents Postexercise Muscle Damage,” J. Strength and Cond. Res., 21(3), 678-684, 2007.
- Caitlin F Hurley et. al., “The effect of caffeine ingestion on delayed onset muscle soreness” J Strength Cond Res2013 Nov;27(11): 3101-9.doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182a99477s.
- Gregory E P Pearcey et al., “Foam rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures” ., J Athl Train 2015 Jan;50(1):5-13. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-50.1.01. Epub 2014 Nov 21
- 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.
Feature image via www.ptpioneer.com