You crushed your workout on Monday, but by Wednesday, you realized that it was actually your workout that crushed you. That feel-good pump gave way to a bit of stiffness, and you woke up the next day wondering when you got hit by a bus. If you’ve hit the gym hard and found that it hit you back, you’ve likely experienced something called DOMS — delayed-onset muscle soreness.
DOMS is the source of all those post-leg day memes about not being able to get out of bed, let alone up that flight of stairs. Soreness after working out doesn’t kick in right away. Instead, it can lie in wait anywhere from 24 to 72 hours before knocking you on your butt. But why does it happen that way, and what even is it?
- What Is Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness?
- Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness Myths
- Effects of Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness
- Should I Worry About Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness?
- How to Treat Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness
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While pretty much everyone who’s ever conquered a tough training session knows about DOMS firsthand, scientists only have speculations about exactly what it is and why it happens. But a few things seem clear.
It’s most common to get hit by a bout of DOMS when you’re coming to physical activity either for the first time or the first time in a long time. (1) You might also be extra prone to post-training soreness after a particularly hard training session where you’ve increased your volume, intensity, and overall time under tension. Eccentric training especially seems to be connected to increased levels of DOMS. (2)(3)
Unfortunately, you may also just be one of those people who seems to just always get sore. You might have done the same exact workout — maybe even with the same exact weights — as your training partner. But don’t be surprised if one of you is hobbling the next day while the other feels fresh and ready to go again. DOMS is highly variable from person-to-person, even if everyone involved performed the same workout. (4)
Why Do I Get Sore?
Strength athletes might know all too well what sparks DOMS — tough training sessions, especially when you haven’t worked out certain muscle groups in a while. But a lot of things happen to your body during a high-intensity workout. So what exactly is the part that causes DOMS?
Just as your workout contains many components, so, it seems, do the stiff aches that follow after. Researchers often recognize that DOMS comes from a combination of factors. It’s theorized that DOMS likely comes from some combination of the following: connective tissue damage, muscle damage, inflammation, lactic acid and free radical buildup, muscle spasms, and enzyme efflux. (5)(6)(7)(8)(9)(1)
If you know muscle soreness, you may think you know DOMS. But do you really? Read on for some DOMS myth-busting.
Myth: DOMS Means Muscle Growth
Beginners may not be the only ones crawling up the stairs after leg day, but less experienced strength athletes may also be more likely to experience DOMS than more experienced athletes. (1) Since beginners are also prone to benefit from “newbie gains”, it’s easy to associate that soreness with that sweet, rapid muscle growth.
But that correlation might be coincidental instead of causative, especially if your case of DOMS is originating more from your connective tissues — your ligaments and tendons — than your muscles themselves. (1)
Myth: You Only Worked Hard if You’re Sore
Beginners and those returning to training after a break are more likely than more experienced and consistent lifters to experience muscle soreness after a training session. (1) Does this mean that you’re not working hard enough if you’re not sore? Not really.
Yes, experienced lifters are likely to get sore after particularly intense sessions — hence all those ice baths. But there doesn’t seem to be any science-based evidence to suggest that DOMS indicates better performance or indicates a threshold of hard work. If anything, working out so hard that you get extremely sore might negatively impact your performance in the days ahead. (10)(1)
Myth: Stretching and Cooling Down Will Prevent DOMS
You’ve just finished a tremendous amount of eccentric training, maybe with some 21s thrown in for good measure. You’re thrilled with how hard you pushed yourself, but you really don’t want to be sore tomorrow. So, you do what they taught you in high school gym, and you cool down and stretch.
That’s a great habit to get into — but alas, research suggests that cooling down doesn’t defeat DOMS as much as might think. (11)(12) That said, if you love yourself a good post-workout jog and stretch ritual and you believe it will help you recover better, then science is also kind of on your side. Because studies have shown that if you believe cooling down will combat soreness and help recovery, you may in fact perceive less soreness afterwards. (13)(14)(15)
The number one effect of delayed-onset muscle soreness is pretty obvious — that pervasive inability to walk up (or down) stairs after leg day. But all memes aside, here’s what you’re likely to deal with alongside that soreness.
Reduced Muscular Force
DOMS isn’t just something you experience as soreness and stiffness. It’s something that’s happening on the biological, cellular level. The scientific jury is out as to which factors contribute most to that lingering post-exercise pain.
But something that seems clear is that certain biological markers of DOMS — for example, your body’s cytokine response to exercise — can reduce muscular force output by as much as half. (10) This means that as much as you might want to go hard even when you’re sore, your workout might be a lot less effective.
Decreased Range of Motion
It’s not just your muscle performance that may be negatively impacted by DOMS. All that stiffness and soreness can amount to a decreased range of motion that could have potentially nasty impacts on your lifting ability. (1)
Imagine trying to get into a proper overhead squat position when your upper back or hips are sore, for example. When your body’s range of motion is limited, so is your ability to perform lifts that require quite lubricated joints.
Connective Tissue Stress
Your range of motion doesn’t only get limited because of the actual stiffness and soreness of DOMS. It seems that DOMS also impacts your ligaments and tendons directly, which may contribute to soreness and also limit your range of motion. (1)
When your connective tissues are under stress, you might be more prone to injury. (16) So if you’re feeling particularly hammered by DOMS, now might not be the best time to hammer away at those weights.
It’s reasonable to worry if you’re sore. Especially when it’s meme-level pain. So, when should you actually be concerned?
How Long Should Soreness Last?
If you’re sore between the 24 to 72 hours after a tough training session, there’s generally not a cause for concern. It’s often just part of that training life to have the “real” workout — going about your daily business with all that soreness — begin a day or two after the gym workout.
That said, if your pain is particularly intense or lasts more than a few days, you might want to check in with a doctor. If you’re on the opposite end of the caution spectrum and are eager to get back to the gym, rest assured — you generally can work out while sore.
Can I Work Out With DOMS?
If you’re heading back to the gym while you’re still stiff, consider spending extra time warming up. That way, your range of motion won’t be as limited as it might otherwise be while you’re sore. Keep in mind that even if you warm up, DOMS may increase injury risk if you attempt to go back to the gym too soon. (17)(1)(16) So listen to your body and learn when it’s best to pump the breaks versus the gas.
How to Tell the Difference Between Pain and Soreness
If you’re in an uncomfortable amount of pain, checking in with a doctor is generally not a bad idea. But as a general rule of thumb, research suggests that DOMS seems to occupy a middle space between soreness pain and injury pain.
When you’re “just” sore, it sure can hurt a lot — hence all the memes. But DOMS pain often feels generalized (“whoa, going up these three stairs is harder than the actual workout was”) versus injury pain, which is often more specific (“whoa, this one part of my shoulder hurts a lot when I move like this”). (17)
That said, DOMS might have a negative impact on your range of motion and stress out your connective tissue. (1)(16) These factors may increase your risk of training injury — so even if DOMS doesn’t start out as injury pain, sometimes it might end up that way.
Alas, there is no “cure” for DOMS. But there are some ways to make it less awful.
Rest When You Need To
Technically, there’s nothing stopping you from working out while you’re sore. Unless your entire body is feeling the pain, you can generally work out different muscles than the ones that are sore.
This is where training splits come in handy. If you know you’re prone to get DOMS, you might opt for a muscle group training split so that, for example, while your chest is sore from yesterday, you can work on legs today.
That said, the more intense your pain from DOMS, the less likely you are to have an effective workout. (17)(1)(16) So, rest when you need to. That might mean moving lighter weights, swapping to a different muscle group, having an active recovery day, or taking a day or two off entirely.
Concentric Active Recovery
Performing light, concentric-focused exercise — think sled pushes, for example — can help reduce the soreness you feel from acute DOMS. (18)(19) For that reason, try integrating plenty of concentric work into your active recovery days to help ease that soreness.
That logic seems to apply to the original, DOMS-causing workouts, too. Integrating concentric moves into your eccentric training may have a preventative effect on developing DOMS. (20) So if you’re extra concerned about DOMS — maybe you really can’t be sore during that wedding this weekend — try programming concentric work along with your eccentric training.
Massage Therapy and Foam Rolling
While massage therapy seems to not actually reduce DOMS on a biological level, it can have a positive impact on athletes’ perception of pain. (21) It’s a similar story with foam rolling, which seems to reduce acute pain and soreness perception. (22)
So if massage or foam rolling feel like they’re working to alleviate your post-workout pain, you’re not the only one. And, well, more power to you.
Are you someone who loves heating pads and saunas? Maybe you’re more of a cold plunge or ice pack type of human. Either way, if you’re a fan of temperature contrast therapy — putting something hot or cold on your sore muscles — you’re in luck. Kind of.
Much like massage therapy and foam rolling, hot and cold therapy doesn’t seem to “cure” DOMS on a biological level — but it does seem to improve athletes’ perception of pain. (23) So if you believe in it, it may just work for you.
Some supplements may help reduce DOMS in experienced lifters. For example, HMB (hydroxy methylbutyrate) is sometimes found in creatine supplements. It might reduce that sweet after-workout soreness when you’ve got a history of strength training under your belt. (24)
However, over-the-counter pain medications like Ibuprofen — even at high doses — doesn’t necessarily reduce the soreness. (18) Vitamins C and vitamin E also haven’t been found to be effective at reducing that post-workout soreness. (25)
On the other hand, anti-inflammatory dietary supplements and omega-3 supplements have both seemed to be effective at treating the symptoms of DOMS. (26)(27) Similarly, caffeine supplements also seem to reduce DOMS symptoms in elite athletes, though research suggests that this has a bigger impact for men than women. (The study did not note whether nonbinary athletes were considered.) (28)
Fight the Soaring Soreness
If your soreness is soaring to new heights after a workout, odds are you’re new here. Or, maybe you haven’t trained — or focused on a certain muscle group — in a while. That’s not to say that advanced lifters don’t get sore — of course they do. Sometimes, that sweet DOMS sensation is inevitable after a particularly intense session, no matter your experience level.
Researchers might not know exactly why DOMS happens when and how — and to whom — it does. But it seems clear that as long as there are barbells to lift, DOMS will be lurking around the corner. Have your foam rollers and supplements ready for when it strikes.
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