If you’ve ever lifted a weight in the gym, chances are you’ve encountered the dreaded and debilitating DOMS.
DOMS = Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
DOMS usually kick in about 48 hours after a training session (hence the inclusion of the word delayed in the name).
It is pretty common for the soreness to hang around for a while. The worst case I ever had was after my first ever experience training legs with German Volume Training (GVT). I did 10 sets of 10 squats and leg curls plus, 3×10-12 Romanian deadlifts and leg presses. I could barely walk for a week. Waddling was a better description of how I moved around. Sitting down on the toilet was tough. Getting back up again felt like a 1-rep max effort!
You have probably had a similar experience at some point.
What Cause DOMS?
When you train with weights you place a lot of tension through your muscles. This causes muscle damage or micro trauma to the fibres. When training with enough effort and workload to induce DOMS there is also an accumulation of metabolites within the working muscle(s). DOMS is the physical manifestation or sensation of the recovery processes that your body goes through to repair the muscles in response to this intense training.
The time between one training session and the next is described by the Stimulus, Recovery, Adaptation (SRA) cycle.
In the SRA cycle, the act of training (contracting muscle under load) is the stimulus. Recovery occurs in response to this stimulus over several days. As early as during training (stimulus), and throughout recovery, the body releases numerous chemicals in response to the sensations of stretch under load, pain, and burning (the “lactic-acid” feeling), and damage. Finally, we adapt and the body is fractionally bigger and/or stronger so that it can tolerate that stimulus next time round.
Practical Tip: Adaptation is probably yet to be complete if you are still sore
As part of the recovery process, there is a great deal of chemical signalling going on. It’s way beyond the scope of this article to analyse that but, it is worth noting that as a consequence there is a localised response. By localised I mean local to the muscles trained. If you train your biceps, your quads don’t get sore! The body is specific with its recovery and adaptation responses.
The chemical signalling basically means that inflammation and swelling goes up, your immune system is activated, pain signalling/sensing pathways called nociceptors are switched on, and the biological repair processes go into overdrive.
This all adds up to one thing…DOMS!
With that background overview out of the way, I will move on to the topic of what you can do to avoid/reduce DOMS.
Firstly, accept that some level of DOMS is perfectly normal. As I just highlighted, DOMS are part of your body’s repair process. If you are training with the aim of forcing your body to grow significantly bigger and stronger you should accept that you will occasionally suffer with DOMS.
Crippling DOMS, however, are not the sign of a good workout or training program. Do not chase maximal DOMS in the misguided belief that more DOMS = more muscle!
One of the best ways to avoid DOMS is to train consistently. I mean this from both a “train often” and a “train in the same manner” standpoint.
Some of the worst DOMS you’ll ever get are after your first proper training session. Another time you’ll get extreme DOMS is your first session back after a layoff. Ever been on holiday for a few weeks, come back to the gym, picked up your training where you left off and then been unable to walk for a few days? Yep me too. Another sure-fire way to induce DOMS is to add a new exercise to your program. For example, if you’ve been back squatting for months and then you switch to front squats, the chances are you’ll pay the price with a hefty dose of DOMS.
Long story short, doing something novel in your training is almost guaranteed to induce DOMS. As you present a novel stimulus the body has to recover and adapt to this. As mentioned earlier, in the SRA discussion, this adaptation process involves pathways likely to cause DOMS.
So, if you:
- Don’t skip sessions
- Follow a program that incrementally progresses
- Use the same core exercises for weeks and months at a time
Your chances of minimising DOMS are improved.
If you have a case of DOMS and you want to shift it ASAP one of the best things you can do is move. Getting the blood flowing is one of the best ways to clear out the metabolic waste products that are in your muscle and contributing to your DOMS.
While you’ll feel a bit stiff and sore you will almost certainly feel better if you use the muscles that are suffering with DOMS in some low-level activity. If your legs are sore, going for a brisk walk, doing some dynamic mobility work, and some bodyweight squats will generally ease the discomfort pretty dramatically.
Think of this as a recovery session. Elite athletes do them to speed their recovery between training and they’ll work much better for you than lying down on the sofa groaning in pain every time you move a muscle.
Powerful Pre-Emptive Recovery Tool
Sleep and nutrition are your two most powerful recovery tools. In this instance, your diet can go a long way to helping you to avoid or, at least, minimise the severity of DOMS.
By eating well before and after training you can somewhat protect yourself against DOMS. Eating a high-quality protein source a few hours before training and again within a couple of hours of training, appears effective.
It seems the Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) play a role in limiting DOMS. So, pick a protein source rich in these (e.g. meat, fish, eggs, cottage cheese, whey). If you are unable to eat a meal containing these for some reason then supplementing with BCAAs might be worth considering.
For the most part BCAAs are just an expensive way to make your water taste better so, I’m not advocating taking them regularly. Just know that they could come in handy if you cannot get a meal in for some reason.
There are a few supplements that can potentially help you to better deal with DOMS. These are Curcumin, Omega-3, and Caffeine.
Curcumin and Omega-3 both have anti-inflammatory properties which can reduce the magnitude of your DOMS. Caffeine is a performance enhancer which works by blocking adenosine receptors. This means taking it pre-workout can help minimise soreness.
NOTE: None of these supplements makes you immune to DOMS. They can just help manage the levels of discomfort you suffer with.
Stuff You Think Will Work That DOES NOT!
Popping some pain killers might seem like the logical step to combat DOMS, however, it’s a really bad idea! They can disrupt gut health, metabolism, and even reduce muscle protein synthesis.
Ice baths or cold showers have also been shown to be ineffective. Trying to completely prevent inflammation is a bad idea. It is part of the recovery and adaptation process. Such extreme measures might actually shut them down so much as to hinder your recovery.
Foam rolling or getting a massage seem logical too. They “feel” like they are working. Unfortunately, the research doesn’t support them in relieving DOMS. If, however, you find getting a massage extremely relaxing then it might have some positive effects. Less so from the specific massage techniques and more so from the calming state the body is in when relaxed. On that basis, I certainly wouldn’t suggest a painful sports massage but, a bit of pampering at a spa day with the girls…treat yourself 😉
Stretching is probably the most common method to deal with DOMS. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to help.
Now that you know what causes DOMS and, what you can and can’t do to deal with it, I feel it is important to give you one final nugget of wisdom…
…DOMS are going to happen and you should learn accept them.
Recognising that you are trying to push your body to do something it doesn’t want (carry lots more muscle mass) and that achieving this requires a robust training stimulus. This comes with consequences. One of which is DOMS.
When you occasionally get a bad case of DOMS, wear it as a badge of honour. It is probably just because you changed your set/rep scheme or varied your exercises. It will pass quickly and while DOMS are not the best indicator of an effective workout they are a sign that a muscle has been challenged and is undergoing repair.
Completely avoiding DOMS is impossible if you want to get jacked. Make your peace with that fact.