Why Do You Get Sore After Workouts? The Science of DOMS
No pain, no gain?
We’ve all experienced that day-or-two-after-a-workout agony – the kind where just getting out of your car or wobbling up the stairs makes you feel like you’re 95 years old. It’s called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and if you’ve been in the gym enough you’re probably not a stranger to it. Many take it as an indicator of the effectiveness of their workout, but is that really the case?
So what is DOMS?
DOMS generally goes something like this:
- Day 1 (The Workout): You do intense physical activity.
- Day 2 (The Calm): Your muscles feel tired, but mostly ok.
- Day 3 (The Storm): BAM! You feel incredibly achy and sore.
Delayed onset muscle soreness is most commonly experienced by new lifters or by experienced lifters after taking a few weeks off from the gym. Studies show it’s not restricted to any particular muscle group, but individuals tend to experience it most after a brutal leg workout.
The symptoms of DOMS are predominantly a result of type 1 muscle strain following unaccustomed exercise – some degree of muscle fiber damage, but nothing serious. Certain types of exercise will cause more damage than others. For example, in the light micrographs below, you can see just how messed up muscle fibers look after a session of unfamiliar eccentric exercise compared to normal muscle fibers.
However, interestingly enough, the degree of microscopic muscle damage isn’t necessarily correlated to the amount of soreness reported. Even if you’re really sore in the days following a workout, that doesn’t mean you completely shredded those muscles. Likewise, you can have severe muscle fiber damage without feeling sore at all.
The other DOMS-inducing change that happens post exercise is metabolic stress. I’m not talking about lactic acid – that’s an outdated concept, as post-exercise blood lactate levels return to normal well before DOMS symptoms appear. However, hydrogen ions and reactive oxygen species, both of which are metabolic byproducts of intense exercise, can damage the cell membrane and cause inflammation.
Does DOMS lead to increased muscle growth?
The short answer is no. DOMS occurs most predominantly in new lifters, and they’re the ones that also happen to grow the fastest, so it’s easy to see why the two are often correlated. But individuals adapt quickly to the point of experiencing little to no DOMS after working out, even when muscle fiber breakdown is present. So rest assured, even though soreness can provide some insight, the “no pain, no gain” concept is wrong – at least for muscle growth.
How can you reduce DOMS?
Although I can’t rid you of DOMS completely, there are some ways to ease the symptoms of DOMS; from prepping pre-workout to soothing worked muscles afterwards.
1. Start slow into a new program
One of the simplest ways to prevent DOMS is to progress slowly into a new workout program, starting with lower volume and working your way up to heavier weights and more sets. It allows your muscles time to get used to new movements and allows for greater adaptation.
2. Foam rolling & vibration massage
Clinical studies have shown that self-massage using a foam roller or Hypervolt vibrating massage tool are both effective for the prevention of DOMS. Massage (whether manual or via foam rolling) has been shown to be most effective for strength recovery (due to reduced cellular stress), while vibration therapy has been shown to be most effective for pain reduction.
Caffeine is one of the most proven performance-enhancing supplements in history, but studies have also shown it significantly reduces DOMS symptoms if taken about an hour before a strenuous workout. Caffeine is an adenosine antagonist, meaning it blocks adenosine molecules from activating pain-signaling neurons in the central nervous system, resulting in reduced levels of soreness.
4. Taurine & BCAAs
Branch-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are abundant in muscle and play a major role in regulating protein synthesis, so naturally, they can help minimize the causes of DOMS by repairing the tissue faster. Taurine has been shown to protect cells against the metabolic stress that causes DOMS. In a recent study, researchers found out that a combo of 2g taurine and 3g BCAAs taken three times daily significantly reduced DOMS, muscle swelling and blood markers for muscle fiber damage post-exercise.
5. Omega-3 fatty acids
Several studies have shown the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids on DOMS, presumably due to the reduction in pro-inflammatory factors such as IL-6 and TNF-α. Research suggests 3000 mg daily.
The Bottom Line
While post-exercise soreness can provide some insight, don’t use it to judge the effectiveness of your workout. Starting slow into new exercises, using a foam roller and vibration massage tool, and supplementing with caffeine, taurine and fish oil can all help minimize the symptoms of DOMS.
And finally, soreness up to 72 hours after a workout is normal, but if you haven’t seen improvement after 3 days or are experiencing swelling, radiating pain, or sharp, acute pain, it’s time to reach out to your chiropractor. To make an appointment at Ascent Chiropractic, call 262-345-4166 or schedule an appointment with our online scheduling app.