Given that I've recently had quite a few clients ask about sore muscles resulting from our workouts I figured it was time to talk about DOMS
Why do I ache the day or two days after our sessions? Why was it so hard to get out of bed this morning? Is this soreness inevitable? What is actually happening to the muscle? What can be done to alleviate the pain?
To beginners this can be concerning. But it is normal and it is to be expected.
IT'S OKAY TO BE SORE
Everyone from beginners to athletes will experience muscle soreness when subjected to a new stress. Certainly beginners will experience excessive soreness as practically every exercise is a new stress when beginning an exercise regimen, however it's important to know that this is to be expected and should not discourage you from continuing with your plan. It will get easier as your muscles adapt to the new stress of exercise.
This post-exercise soreness, usually experienced 24-48 hours after the workout, is the result of damage caused by the stress of the workout and it's GOOD – or at least, not bad. Causing damage on a microscopic level is the point of exercise as this is how your body is forced to adapt and rebuild stronger. DOMS is an indicator of this process – though arguably it’s not required (muscle hypertrophy can still occur in the absence of DOMS). It's figuring out how to deal with this unfamiliar stress (whether it is due to weight lifting or running around the block).
On a molecular level the muscle tears, especially during the eccentric (lengthening) phase of exercise.
This is why it’s crucial that you don’t cheat on the eccentric phase of an exercise rep. For example: when doing biceps curls the eccentric phase is when you are returning the weight to the beginning of the rep by straightening the arm – if you do so in a deliberate somewhat slow manner then you maximize the effectiveness of the stress – if you merely drop the weight in a hurried manner to begin the next rep you do not – additionally you risk damage your elbow joint if you move too quickly. This is one of the most common errors beginners make.
Warning: Nerdy Science from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delayed_onset_muscle_soreness
There are two prominent theories as to what causes DOMS.
1) In 1902 Theodore Hough postulated that the soreness is attributed to the increased tension force and muscle lengthening from eccentric exercise. This may cause the actin and myosin cross-bridges (microscopic muscle filaments that pull on each other causing muscle contraction) to separate prior to relaxation, ultimately causing greater tension on the remaining active motor units. This increases the risk of broadening, smearing, and damage to the sarcomere (the smallest contractile unit of muscle). When microtrauma occurs to these structures, nociceptors (pain receptors) within muscle connective tissues are stimulated and cause the sensation of pain.
2) Another explanation for the pain associated with DOMS is the "enzyme efflux" theory. Following microtrauma, calcium that is normally stored in the sarcoplasmic reticulum accumulates in the damaged muscles. Cellular respiration is inhibited and ATP needed to actively transport calcium back into the sarcoplasmic reticulum is also slowed. This accumulation of calcium may activate proteases and phospholipases which in turn break down and degenerate muscle protein. This causes inflammation, and in turn pain due to the accumulation of histamines, prostaglandins, and potassium
IT’S NOT LACTIC ACID
Contrary to popular belief DOMS is not caused by lactic acid build up. As tests have shown that lactic acid build-up also occurs during concentric phase-only exercise, which does not produce DOMS. Additionally, lactic acid build up usually dissipates within one hour of the stress and DOMS occurs much later. Plus, I think people just like saying “lactic acid” – it’s a phonetically sound ominous word. But its role in exercise is greatly misunderstood. Lactic acid is, however, related to muscle fatigue.
SORENESS VS INJURY (MICRO VS MACRO TRAUMA)
This soreness is not to be mistaken with the sudden acute pain of a muscle tear on a macro level – which means injury. Injury, of course, is not good. This is where the “no pain no gain” mantra has occasionally been misunderstood. Any sudden and sharp pain should be heeded and you should cease the activity. Muscle soreness is delayed and felt after the exercise bout. Again, though, this should not be confused with muscle fatigue (like having trouble lifting your arms above your head immediately after a killer arms session). There’s a lot going on – you can’t blame people for getting confused.
Firstly let’s put the nail in the coffin regarding the acute effectiveness of static stretching. Doing so beforehand to has no immediate benefit – forget what your high school football coach may have told you 20 years ago – static stretching prior to a workout or competition has no acute benefit and can, in fact, decrease your performance.
However, there are means to reduce the microtrauma and subsequent soreness in the program design, such as gradually increasing the intensity of a new exercise program. But, as indicated above, this soreness is not a bad thing. Take the pain! Just don’t injure yourself.
Suggestions on what to do about this post-exercise soreness range from medication (ibuprofen – subsequently not recommended as studies suggest that it stunts muscle growth), enzyme therapy, massage, active recovery, to doing nothing.
Personally I like to foam roll (self massage) and continue exercise at a lower intensity (active recovery) such as body weight squats, a light run or even walking. Massage and active recovery help flush the area with blood/nutrients – thereby decreasing the discomfort and, some studies suggest, speed up the recovery.
WANTING THE SORENESS
Believe it or not if you stick with the program – and dedicate yourself to a lifestyle of fitness – there will come a time when you will seek out this soreness, as its absence suggests that you're no longer adapting or haven’t done enough – therefore it's time to change up your plan. This is where you employ the concepts of periodization and progression. But that’s another discussion.
You don’t have to love the pain but the next time you have a hard time getting out of bed due to Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness know that you’re doing your body good! Keep at it!