DOMS: Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. We have probably all experienced this feeling at least a few times in our lives, 24-48 hours after a workout. Some love that feeling, because to them, it means that they’ve had an effective workout. Others may hate it because, well… it hurts! But is soreness really a good indicator of a great workout… and is it necessary to feel sore to believe that your training was worthwhile?
Let’s unpack the reasons for muscle soreness, and find out what it’s really telling us.
Being sore after a workout is a common experience for people if they haven’t worked the muscles they’ve just trained in some time. It might be because they’re beginners, it might be because they’ve started a new programme or tried a new exercise, or it might simply have been a while since they did them!
Our bodies and muscles adapt to the stimulus they’re given, which is essentially what makes us better. Have you ever noticed you’ve been able to lift more than before, or perhaps jump higher than when you started? Or perhaps run faster that you could in the past? Yep – that’s your body adapting, and getting better as a result of your training. Pretty straightforward right?
So let’s take the squat. It might be when you first started incorporating squats into your fitness routine, it was a completely new idea to you. Doing a bunch of bodyweight squats in a workout would give you aching quads and butt for a few days. We all remember that – the first time we had leg DOMS and struggled to sit down or get up from a chair without wincing! Now, it’s likely you could manage those squats in a warm up and not need to write home about it the next day, because your muscles have adapted. However, if you load those squats up and hit a few big tempo sets, or maybe you are going to take on a benchmark workout like Murph which includes 300 of those bad boys in a weighted vest in one session… you’re going to know about it the next day… because, surprise surprise – our body isn’t used to it.
So what actually IS the muscle soreness?
Muscle soreness stems from breaking down muscles: small, microscopic tears (i.e. damage) to the muscle fibres. This might sound horrifying – but it is a good thing, within a certain threshold. Working out or doing resistance training is providing a stimulus to those muscles and actually changes them structurally, so you’re damaging them to a point where you can move them through a new range of motion, or with additional load, or both!
And if I DON’T feel sore…?
Lack of soreness doesn’t necessarily mean that you aren’t pushing yourself or aren’t trying: your muscles have potentially adapted to the workload you’re putting them through – which is awesome! Not to mention, that not all workouts provoke this soreness; but you are still applying a stimulus to your body and muscles. You could have been working and pushing the body in a myriad of different ways. Perhaps the workout you have in mind was testing you more cardiovascularly, or maybe you were challenging grip endurance, or a new skill you’ve learned… the list goes on!
Your warm up, cool down, hydration levels, stretching and amount of rest will also all have an impact on how you feel after a workout. Dehydration is often linked to muscle craps and excessive soreness, so if you’ve hydrated yourself sufficiently, you are less likely to feel soreness the next day. So… if you wake up without those DOMS, It could simply be that your recovery routine is working – well done!
Pain is NOT the name of the Game
Heard the phrase ‘No pain no gain?’ Well, it’s not exactly true. You do not need to be chasing that muscle soreness in order to be making progress, and how sore you are should certainly not be a measure of your effort or success in the gym. Focus on indicators that actually reflect your goals. Are you making the progress YOU want to? Whether that’s to put on some muscle, add kilos to your deadlift, shave a few seconds off your 1k row, or just to have fun – these are all completely valid goals and THESE should be the measure of your success. If your aim is to be fit and healthy and have a great hour with like-minded people a few times a week, then it makes no sense at all to be measuring your progress on how hard it is to walk the day after a class!
Ok, so perhaps it’s not a badge of honour… how do I combat DOMS when they strike?
Next time you experience muscle soreness, notice what the circumstances were. How hydrated were you? Did you warm up effectively? What movements did you do? How long had it been since you last came to the gym?
There might be something you can learn from your experience… if perhaps this was your first session back after lockdown, and you decided to dive straight in with a few hundred weighted squats, then it should come as no huge surprise that those legs are feeling it the next day.
Each body is different and will respond to the stimuli in different ways, depending on a whole range of factors, so it could well be that you and your workout pal do the exact same workout and yet have different DOMS stories to tell the next day! So – try to let go of the notion that soreness is the main indicator for how effective your training is, and focus more on what actually matters to you.
And if you’re hit with major soreness – try some gentle exercise, but avoid attacking the exact same muscle group with the same exercises the next day! But here lies the beauty of the SCFIT programmes: they are designed with you in mind, to give you balanced training structure that sets you up for success, and not perpetual soreness!
If you’re interested in reading more about the science behind muscle soreness, including an exploration of the type of muscle contractions that are most likely to cause DOMs, check out this article on the CrossFit Journal. It’s a longer read, but a thorough insight into what’s really going on behind the scenes.
If you’d like to be part of the SCFIT community, or if you already are and would like to chat to us about your goals and progress, get in touch today!
Sources: Rondel King, Exercise Physiologist. CrossFit Journal: Muscle Soreness Overview.