Post-Exercise Muscle Soreness (DOMS)

Post exercise muscle soreness - aka Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS);

- relatively mild (dull ache) but ongoing discomfort

- usually appears 1-2 days after the workout

- effects are local to the muscles used during exercise

- usually dissipates after a further 24-48 hours

- a result of new exercise or an increase in intensity of exercise

- largely caused by build up of waste-products in the muscle and physical stress to muscle tissue

You’ll be familiar with the feeling of post-exercise soreness...

That feeling of discomfort when walking down stairs the day after leg day. Abdominal soreness the day after an abs workout. Or sore pecs after bench pressing.

It Is NOT The Same As An Injury

It’s important to understand the difference between DOMS & muscle injury.

During exercise, your muscles may become fatigued… a gradual build-up of discomfort which eventually forces you to slow or stop the current exercise. This discomfort caused by fatigue, will reduce as soon as you stop the exercise.

An injury caused by that exercise is more likely to cause a sharp pain that;

a) doesn’t go away when you stop exercising

b) and may last for several days after the workout.

DOMS is a natural response to challenging exercise. It’s a symptom of your body recognising and responding to physical stress (don’t assume that this means that your workout was effective)…

(In theory, building up your exercise intensity VERY gradually should help to avoid any muscle soreness, if you wish to do so. Just be aware that there is a bit of guesswork here, and by holding back, you may be slowing down your rate of progress. Also, you will notice that your muscles adapt to this new stress very effectively. As long as you are continuing to exercise regularly, the soreness, if it does occur, shouldn’t be repetitive (until you significantly change exercises/exercise intensity again).

When starting a new training programme after a significant break, consider starting very slowly. Rushing into advanced, challenging workouts that you found on Youtube, in the hope of producing rapid, overnight results, is a mistake. And WILL leave you feeling very sore the next day. This actually gives you a ‘reason’ to avoid exercising again in a few days… “I don’t like exercise… it hurts”.

Of course, after a few weeks, you feel frustrated because you are still not in the shape that you want to be in… so you justify starting again and repeating what you did previously… “No pain… no gain!”

So you make the same mistake… jumping in at the deep end... It hurts… again. (The gap between workouts was too big so you reversed the adaptations your body made following the first workout).

You can see how the cycle goes.

And the end result… is no progress.

Muscle Soreness IS NOT Evidence That Your Workout Was Effective

Muscle soreness is not necessarily a reflection of what you achieved in an individual workout. So despite often being seen as a ‘badge of honour’, feeling extremely sore the following day should not be the aim of your workout.

Similarly, not feeling sore does not mean that your workout was not effective.

It means you did something different.

That could be something positive. It could equally be that you did something pointless…

For example, if you’re the type to get bored and switch training programmes every 2 weeks because you didn’t see instant results. The frequent changes to new training methods may cause you to feel sore more often (you’re often doing something that you are unaccustomed to). But the fact that you have failed to maintain any training consistency means that you may actually be slowing down your own progress.

That Doesn’t Mean That Muscle Soreness Is Something To Avoid

Having said that, muscle soreness, is not necessarily negative. As we said, it simply shows that you’ve either done something new, or increased your workout intensity.

In most cases this is a good thing... You should be looking to progress at every opportunity. This will almost always mean increasing the amount/intensity of exercise that you are doing.

As long as your exercise technique is correct, you are not overtraining, and allowing adequate rest, there is nothing ‘wrong’ with feeling sore.

(Don’t forget, DOMS and muscle injury are two different things).

Take A Rest Day Or Rotate Your Workouts

While experiencing muscle soreness, exercise capacity is reduced… less muscle strength/power, less muscle endurance, reduced flexibility, less perceived energy, and potentially increased injury risk.

This is one of the many reasons, that adequate rest is an absolutely vital part of your exercise programme…

48 hours recovery between intense exercise sessions (there are ways around this eg. splitting workouts to focus on different muscle groups on consecutive days).

Repeating similar, intense workouts daily is, at best, likely to be pointless. At worst, you will end up with an injury or symptoms of overtraining.

Either way, your results ar not going to be what you were hoping for.

Having said that, gentle exercise/movement, on the following day (walking and basic mobility) may be useful. This will encourage blood flow to and from the muscle (to help remove those waste products that may be lingering), and help to loosen stiff joints.

Intense massage and foam rolling may be better left until the soreness begins to subside.