For the uninitiated, muscle soreness is the necessary evil of your lifting career. No matter how long you train, or if you’re into bodybuilding or heaving heavy barbells, there always seems to be a rotating door of sore, achy muscles from whatever happened in the gym the day prior.
While muscle soreness may not be the training boogeyman that some claim, there are definitely reasons to minimize it where possible — but what is the best way to go about taking care of this proverbial (and literal) pain in the butt?
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What is Muscle Soreness?
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) has been shown to largely be the byproduct of microtrauma at the cellular level. It has been theorized that the forcible lengthening of muscle tissue during the eccentric component of high-intensity exercise is likely a contributing factor to these microscopic tears. (1)
Low-grade inflammation tends to follow as part of the natural healing cycle of muscle tissue. While not necessarily a contributing factor to DOMS per se, this localized swelling does lend itself to the idea that muscle soreness is likely a form of self-induced microscopic injury.
How Does Muscle Soreness Occur?
The eccentric component of exercise has long since been associated with generating muscle soreness. In fact, the consistency with which eccentrics can produce DOMS has led scientific studies to use them in research protocols to produce predictable patterns of soreness. (2)
Other potential avenues of generating muscle damage would be to train on unrecovered muscles (for example, muscles that are still sore). Muscles that are still healing are predisposed to incurring greater damage. (3)
Finally, the novel training effect states that there is an increased occurrence of muscle damage — and thus likelihood of soreness — by performing exercises that you’re not yet accustomed to. (4)
Common Muscle Soreness Myths
With how much information is available in the online fitness sphere, it can be hard to distinguish between valid facts and debunked myths. Here are a few misconceptions about muscle soreness.
You Should Never Work Out While Sore
While training an under-recovered muscle group is not the best idea, it doesn’t mean you cannot train at all. A well-designed training split will allow you to rotate which muscles you’re working in a way that avoids doubling down on areas that are still recovering.
For example, in a push/pull workout split, even if your lats and traps are sore, you can safely train your chest without worrying about undue stress on your posterior chain.
You Should Never Feel Sore
Although unpleasant, some degree of muscle soreness is to be expected at some point in any training program. The literature suggests that new exercise challenges may increase the likelihood of muscle soreness, especially if you have lower technical skill or bodily coordination. (4)
Further, the principle of progressive overload states that some form of greater challenge must be imposed upon a muscle group to see continuous adaptation. Intentionally overwhelming your body to encourage new muscle growth or increase strength tends to go hand-in-hand with occasional bouts of soreness.
Soreness Always Means Progress
Soreness is often mistaken as an indicator of a good workout. However, your workouts are only as good as your recovery. If you aren’t eating properly and sleeping well, all that trauma on your muscles does little for your ability to actually progress from workout to workout.
Excessive muscle damage requires greater nutritional resources and, likely, greater time to recover — therefore, excessive soreness may actually be an indicator that you pushed too hard the day prior.
Further, science points to the repeated-bout effect, which indicates that soreness would likely reduce between workouts as the body becomes more resilient to the same family of exercises. (5)
Soreness Never Means Progress
While often painful, muscle soreness is not without its benefits. Having DOMS in the right spots may actually be an indicator of proper mechanics in each of your exercises. While more soreness does not necessarily mean more growth, noticeable soreness in the right spots at least suggests that the right muscles performed the work, meaning your training is probably on track.
Muscle Soreness Recovery Methods
While there are a plethora of recovery methods for “curing” muscle soreness, many are actually misinformed and some might even be completely counterproductive. Others still, while not necessarily counterproductive, aren’t as beneficial as you might think.
Sleep is one of the most underrated yet powerful recovery methods for literally every trainee. Although caffeine may feel like it counteracts the performance drop from a rough night, nothing compares to the benefits of a complete night’s sleep. Although the optimal number of hours varies widely, consistently getting a quality night’s sleep is the most effective means of recovery available to you. (6)
In order to properly recover from physical exercise, your body must physically heal from the damage incurred from each session before it can compensate by adding new or stronger tissue for the next session. A healthy diet complete with all macronutrients to properly fuel your training is crucial for performance and recovery.
Part of the recovery process post-workout also involves alterations in hydration status and electrolyte balance as fluid shifts and substrates move around within the body. Of course, being properly hydrated during your training can also benefit your performance in the moment. (7)
Active recovery sessions take advantage of directed blood flow in the form of low-intensity exercise to help reduce sore, stiff muscles from hard training sessions. While true rest is beneficial, and often the go-to move for many trainees, various low-intensity forms of exercise may help speed the recovery process the day after a hard workout. These sessions can also be beneficial immediately after your main work has been completed. (8)
There are numerous recovery modalities that feel as though they improve soreness after a hard training session. Contrast therapy, foam rolling, cupping and more have risen to prominence in recent years. However, those with research backing are surprisingly few and far between. That said, massage is one of the few recovery techniques shown to consistently help improve muscle soreness. (9)
Cold has been used historically as a general pain suppressant, which may be effective for an acute injury. Unfortunately, when dealing with the natural arc of training and recovery, the inflammatory response is a necessary part of the healing and growth process.
Without mobilization of the immune system via inflammation, your damaged tissued can’t bounce back into fighting shape. Techniques such as ice packs or cryo chambers between training sessions are now being acknowledged as potentially counterproductive as they can slow the muscle growth process. (9)
Similar to cryotherapy, NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) have historically been used to combat the inflammatory process associated with post-exercise soreness and recovery. Research has since vindicated the idea that NSAIDs may actually delay the recovery process and, long term, possibly dampen muscle growth. (9)
Although unpleasant, some degree of muscle soreness is just part of the game when it comes to exercise. The continual process of improvement demands greater and greater challenges on your body in order to make meaningful change.
This unfortunately comes hand-in-hand with some degree of soreness. Fortunately, with access to thorough research to unpack and help you understand the nature of soreness, you can be better prepared to fight it and make more progress in the gym.
- Hotfiel, Thilo; Freiwald, Jürgen; Hoppe, Matthias; Lutter, Christoph; Forst, Raimund; Grim, Casper; Bloch, Wilhelm; Hüttel, Moritz; Heiss, Rafael (2018). Advances in Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS): Part I: Pathogenesis and Diagnostics. Sportverletzung · Sportschaden, 32(4), 243–250.
- Hill, Jessica; Howatson, Glyn; van Someren, Ken; Gaze, David; Legg, Hayley; Lineham, Jack; Pedlar, Charles (2017). Effects of Compression Garment Pressure on Recovery from Strenuous Exercise. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 12(8), 1078-1084.
- Aicale, R.; Tarantino, D.; Maffulli, N. (2018). Overuse injuries in sport: a comprehensive overview. Journal of Orthopaedic Surgery and Research, 13(1), 309.
- Howatson, Glyn; van Someren, Ken A (2008). The Prevention and Treatment of Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage. Sports Medicine, 38(6), 483–503.
- Hyldahl, Robert D.; Chen, Trevor C.; Nosaka, Kazunori (2017). Mechanisms and Mediators of the Skeletal Muscle Repeated Bout Effect. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, 45(1), 24–33.
- Chennaoui, M., Vanneau, T., Trignol, A., Arnal, P., Gomez-Merino, D., Baudot, C., … Chalabi, H. (2021). How does sleep help recovery from exercise-induced muscle Injuries? Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 24(10), 982–987.
- Anthony Barnett (2006). Using Recovery Modalities between Training Sessions in Elite Athletes. Sports Medicine, 36(9), 781–796.
- Menzies, Paul; Menzies, Craig; McIntyre, Laura; Paterson, Paul; Wilson, John; Kemi, Ole J. (2010). Blood lactate clearance during active recovery after an intense running bout depends on the intensity of the active recovery. Journal of Sports Sciences, 28(9), 975–982.
- Dupuy, Olivier; Douzi, Wafa; Theurot, Dimitri; Bosquet, Laurent; Dugué, Benoit (2018). An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Physiology, 9(403).
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