Delayed onset muscle soreness - or DOMS - is a common occurrence after exercise. In general, it’s nothing to worry about at all, but extreme or long-lasting pain could be an indicator that you’ve over-reached in training. In this article you’ll learn the conditions that cause muscle soreness to occur, exactly what muscle soreness is, and how you can recover faster from it.
When Does Muscle Soreness Occur?
Muscle soreness can occur in the hours following physical exercise. Some people find that they feel sore the next day after training, and others ache almost instantly, or as much as two days after exercise. DOMS most often arises in a few specific scenarios:
1. When you've exercised in a new way
This could be an entirely new movement that you've never practised before, or it could be a movement that you're familiar with, done in a slightly different way. This is why it's common for people who are new to exercise to experience soreness more frequently than more seasoned gym-goers.
2. When you've increased your training volume
DOMS also occurs when you've done more during a workout than ever before. In any given exercise, training volume is calculated by multiplying your total number of repetitions per set by your total number of sets by the weight you used (or an average, if applicable). By increasing the weight used, or the number of reps/sets you complete, you increase your training volume. Your volume of training would also increase if, for example, you increased the amount of time spent in a plank, or went for a longer run.
How to calculate training volume:
Total number of sets completed
Number of repetitions per set
The weight you used
For example, I completed 3 sets of 10 squats at 50kg. Here's how I'd calculate my training volume:
3 x 10 x 50 = 1,500kg
This means my total training volume was 1,500kg.
3. When you've increased your training intensity
The intensity of your strength training is expressed as a percentage of your one rep max: that's the most you can lift for a single rep of any given exercise. If my one rep max deadlift is 100kg, and I deadlift 80kg in a workout, then I've worked at 80% intensity. In workouts that don’t involve strength training, intensity could be increased by moving at higher speeds, more explosively, or with more complexity.
4. When you've changed your training stimulus
A marathon runner might feel sore after doing a workout with sprints, and a sprinter might feel sore after long distance running. You’re more likely to experience DOMS after using your muscles in a new way, even if the movements are similar to what you’ve done before. Beginners who are new to exercise often experience post-workout muscle aches more frequently than seasoned athletes, and regular gym-goers like my clients ache when I apply a change to their workout programme.
5. After eccentric loading
Eccentric loading, or negative training, is typically used to gain strength in bodyweight movements such as push-ups or pull-ups, but it's also widely applied in strength training.
The eccentric part of a lift is the part where the muscle lengthens, like the "lowering" phase of a bicep curl or squat. The muscle is under tension (it's holding a weight), and lengthens as it controls the weight down.
We can control much more weight in the eccentric part of a lift than in the concentric, and so exercising this control through exercises such as negative pull-ups allows us to gain the strength to perform a strict pull-up over time, although it can make us feel very sore afterwards!
Check out the below videos for an explanation on the term "eccentric", and a brief demo on how eccentric loading can be used.
Check out this video demonstration explaining what "concentric" and "eccentric" mean:
Here's an example of eccentric loading. I used this "negative" pull-up to build the strength to do strict pull-ups:
What Is Muscle Soreness?
Every time you work out, you inflict microscopic damage on your muscles, which is then repaired naturally by your body with a tiny new layer of muscle tissue. As these layers are formed, you build visible muscle.
You don’t need to have muscle soreness every time you work out in order to see progress. In fact, it's not advisable to push yourself to the point where you're sore after every workout. That would be pretty stressful for your body, and is associated with a number of negative effects including slower recovery and loss of other skills like mobility and resilience.
In general, if you're sore for 2-4 days, you're in the safe zone. If you're experiencing DOMS for more than 4 days, you may have gone too hard. Don’t worry, though - just learn from your mistake, and use your new knowledge to structure a more appropriate training programme.
If you're training 2-4 times per week, you might experience light DOMS 2-8 times per month, and more intense DOMS after notable changes in your programming. You should only be working at a seriously high intensity near the top level of your ability less than 10% of the time. Any more than that and you'll exhaust yourself, leaving your body at risk of a weakened immune system and slower progression.
Most of the time, leave something in the tank after training. Your programme should rotate through different micro-phases each month, potentially including one or more technique/skill days, endurance days, strength days, cardio days, mental toughness days, dependent on your goals. A 1000m rower, for example, might alternate between technique, strength endurance, and explosive power as part of their programme.
Remember that as you progress and get used to certain movements and training styles, you'll have less chance of DOMS, but you might see slower progress. Variety and programme structure are necessary to provide your body with the right stimulus, and progressing yourself gradually is a real art form that comes with experience. If you’re finding yourself too sore too often, or if you’re not seeing adequate results from your workouts, I would strongly recommend finding a reputable expert who can provide you with more specific advice based on your individual requirements.
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How To Recover From Muscle Soreness
One of the least effective methods of relieving sore muscles is to sit still! It might seem counterintuitive to move your body more when you're aching, but movement promotes blood flow to the muscles which provides them with nutrients and carries away unwanted substances.
Here are my recommendations for relieving post-exercise pain:
1. Move your body
Importantly, avoid being sedentary for long periods at all costs! Do what you can to move in a variety of ways at a relatively low intensity so as not to challenge your muscles while they're recovering. Activities such as gentle walking, cycling, swimming, or even dancing will help to keep you feeling mobile. Once the blood gets flowing to your muscles, you'll feel instantly better.
2. Stretch it off
Keep it relaxed and groovy - you're not looking to drastically increase your flexibility here, just to reaffirm the flexibility you had before. This type of movement also promotes blood flow, and stops you from stiffening up as signals are sent to your brain that remind it how mobile you are.
3. Massage techniques
Your muscles might be sore to touch, but a gentle relaxing massage with a therapist or a brief session with a foam roller will help them to feel worlds better. Again, you don't want to batter your muscles here, but to relax them and help flush out unwanted substances. As an example, here's a video demonstration of what a full body foam roller session might look like:
4. Cold exposure
Exposing your body to unusual low temperatures can have a number of healing effects. It's known to boost metabolism, stimulate the immune and nervous systems for faster recovery, and reduce inflammation in joint and muscle tissues.
Inflammation is a natural part of the healing process, and has many important functions. too much, though, contributes to the pain you experience post-exercise.
The most popular cold exposure techniques are ice baths and cryotherapy. Both are great, but cryotherapy of course will cost you money, whereas you can make an ice bath for free at home! Here's a handy protocol for easing yourself into freezing cold water safely:
Ice bath protocol:
- Fill a bathtub with ice cubes and cold tap water. The colder the better, so keep the ratio of ice to water as high as possible.
- Before diving in, take a moment to breathe deeply and calm your nervous system.
- Acclimate your skin to the water by gently dipping in your feet and hands. Work up to standing in the water, then kneeling, gradually submerging your whole body apart from your face. The first time you do this it might take you a few minutes.
- Try not to jump in too quickly. Sudden exposure to cold water without practise can send the body into shock.
- Maintain control over your breathing - gasping and shuddering will only make the experience painful! Focus on staying calm.
- You'll need to build up a tolerance over time. In your first session you might spend a few seconds to a minute in the water (it may even be worth getting out for a minute and then back in again once or twice), but over time you should be able to work up to around 10 minutes of constant exposure. There's no need to rush this!
Your body requires nutrients to repair and replace the muscle tissue that has sustained micro-damage during training. A balanced diet overall is ideal, and particularly around exercise you'll need to ensure you're consuming adequate protein: the building blocks of muscle.
Keeping yourself hydrated gives your body the best chance of utilising the nutrients you've eaten and flushing out unwanted chemicals from your sore muscles. Here's the formula I use to calculate my clients' daily water requirements:
Bodyweight (kg) x 0.038 = daily water requirement in litres
For example, if I weighed 60kg, I'd multiply 60 x 0.038 to find that I need 2.28 litres of water per day.
Thanks so much for reading! Don't forget to take action on these points and use your new knowledge to speed recovery and get better results from your workouts. I can't wait to hear how you get on!