Level – Intermediate
Words – 1300
Reading Time – 5 minutes
What are DOMS and what are the mechanisms behind it?
DOMS = Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness
“Pain and stiffness felt in muscles several hours or even days after unaccustomed or strenuous exercise.
The main reason you walk like John Wayne and have to carefully lower yourself onto the toilet after leg day”
The actual science and mechanisms behind DOMS is relatively unknown but the general consensus is that it is related to muscle damage and in particular, inflammation from micro tears in the muscle. DOMS usually occurs anywhere from 6-72 hours after a bout of exercise, hence the “Delayed Onset”.
It’s also probably worth mentioning that it appears the eccentric or lowering portion of the lift where the muscles are lengthened, tend to cause more DOMS than the concentric portion of the lift.
That means if you’re doing super slow negatives, lowering the weights very slowly, you’re at a much higher risk look of walking like our cowboy buddy John Wayne the next day.
Why DOMS ISN’T an indicator of a good workout
As DOMS is an indicator of muscle damage and muscle damage is an essential component to build muscle, it would suggest that you’ve had a good workout, right?
Well yes and no. Let us explain.
DOMS would suggest you’ve worked hard enough to cause significant muscle damage which is good, you can’t get bigger and stronger if you don’t work hard enough. Providing you get enough nutrients and take enough time to recover, this muscle damage will elicit a positive adaptation.
For hypertrophy (muscle building) purposes, where the breakdown and repair of muscle tissue is essential, DOMS can be a useful indicator that effort is high enough.
If you never get DOMS, you probably need to up your game.
However, DOMS can also be caused through doing unfamiliar exercises or movement patterns. You may notice when you change training programmes or perform an exercise you haven’t done for a while, the next day is always an interesting experience.
It’s not necessarily the fact you’ve worked harder than before, it’s because you’ve done something different.
This relates to one of the biggest problems we see with most people that go to the gym. They will do random workouts every session and will continuously complain (read: brag) about having DOMS. They will go to the gym and actually try to get DOMS.
The issue with this is, you have no way of knowing if you’re making progress.
You might get stronger over time, just for the sheer amount of hard work being put in, but it’s not the most efficient way to go about it. It’s like going around the sun to reach the moon, you get there eventually but why make it harder than it needs to be? Working hard in the gym is essential but so is following a plan.
“There’s a difference between working hard and making progress.”
Why too much DOMS can be bad thing
Have you ever had one of those days where you wake up so sore, you just don’t want to work out or you have really bad session?
That’s what DOMS can do to you. Whilst not necessarily bad every now and then (it’s going to happen at some point) if it is happening to you frequently, not only will you lose the motivation to train but your performance will start to slowly decrease. Potentially in part due to the lack of motivation but mainly due to the fact you’ve done so much damage you’re simply not as strong.
We’ve also noticed some “questionable” form and technique when a person is suffering from DOMS which is only going to create bad habits during your training. If you’re too sore to perform an exercise correctly, you may as well not do it at all.
Can I still train with DOMS?
Now this may seem completely contradictory to what we have just been saying BUT sometimes DOMS can be quickly alleviated with bit of extra blood flow to the area (as we mention in our tips below).
For example, if you’re suffering with leg DOMS, a few bodyweight squats or a couple of minutes on a rower could help you get over the soreness. It’s only when DOMS starts to affect your session that it could become an issue.
So don’t write off the gym if you’re sore. Go in, have a warm up then see how you feel.
6 tips to help reduce DOMS
DOMS won’t last forever and if you are following a programme that has you doing similar movements each session, the DOMS will also become less intense. However, if you are struggling to move, here are some tips to help recover and reduce soreness:
- Squat some more (or just move about in general) – Our clients think we’re mad when the first thing we tell them to do after complaining about leg DOMS is to do bodyweight squats. It’s not until they trust us and actually do them they realise it actually works. You’ll find if you stop moving, not only will your muscles and joints stiffen up but because you’re getting less blood flow and nutrients to the area, it will take longer to repair the microtears.
- Eat enough calories – This is going to be tricky if you’re trying to lose fat, as you don’t want to negate the calorie deficit, but at the same time you need enough calories to at least not elongate the duration of the DOMS longer than it needs to be. If you go super low calorie and find you have DOMS for several days, it could decrease performance which could lead to muscle loss. If you’re looking to lose fat try to find the sweet spot that allows you to continue doing so whilst not suffering with soreness for too long. If you’re gaining, well, fill ya boots.
- Get enough nutrients – It’s not all about the calories but getting enough vitamins and minerals too. Make sure you are getting as close to all the RDA’s of all your vitamins and minerals as possible to ensure your body is firing on all cylinders. While you could track these all individually, eating a wide variety of foods including various protein, fats, fruits and vegetables should ensure you getting close to your RDA’s. We also typically recommend a low dose multivitamin supplement to cover the bases too. If you’re still unsure, you could always go the whole hog and get blood tests to test for specific deficiencies.
- Get enough protein – Making sure you are getting enough calories, vitamins and minerals to facilitate the repair of the muscle is one thing but as is keeping protein high. As you should already know from reading our protein article, amino acids, obtained through dietary protein intake is essential for the growth and repair of muscle so make sure you’re eating (or drinking) enough.
- Stay Hydrated – Getting circulation to the damaged tissue is an essential part to the repair process as blood helps to transports nutrients. Good blood flow can also help to remove any waste products or build up in the area. Aim for 2-3 litres of water per day with another litre for every hour of intense activity.
- Stretch/Foam roll – Stretching, foam rolling or getting a massage can help to stimulate the blood vessels to improve to help improve blood flow. Think of it as “telling the blood where to go”.
Hopefully now you know everything there is to know about DOMS, what to avoid and how to avoid it.
- DOMS can be an indicator that you’ve worked hard and are hitting the right muscles but doesn’t always mean you are making progress.
- DOMS won’t last forever and will get progressively less severe the more you perform an exercise, also known as the “repeated bout effect”.
- You can still train with DOMS, as long as it doesn’t affect your technique.
- The NUMBER ONE indicator of a good session is making some form of progression, whether that be in strength, speed or technique.
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