Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness – or DOMS in short – is the stiffness and pain that muscles experience from 12 to 24 hours after unaccustomed vigorous exercise or strenuous physical activity; DOMS usually peaks after 48 hours and then starts to gradually subside again. Beginners who just started to engage in a weight training program often fear and lament DOMS – it often dampens their initial enthusiasm to get fit -, whereas more advanced gym-enthusiasts generally feel quite pleased with it, as they take it for a sign of having had an exceptionally good work-out. But is the degree of soreness really a good criterion, how well you have exercised and how effectively your work-out has stimulated muscle growth ?

As the name says, DOMS is muscle soreness felt with a delay, and has nothing to do with the short-lived burn in the muscles caused by the build-up of lactic acid, as it often occurs in the quadriceps towards the end of a set of Leg Extensions.

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness ( DOMS) is thought to be caused by microscopic injuries to the myofibrils, the contractile elements inside the muscle fibers, and/or to the connective tissue (endomysium), which holds muscle fibers together. The micro-tears of the myofibrils seem to occur primarily at the Z-Lines of muscle fibrils’ sarcomeres and at their muscle-tendon junctions, the connection sites between muscle-fibers and the tendons attaching a muscle to a bone. This causes inflammation, irritating nerve fibers in the area, and causes the DOMS pain sensation. However, this microscopic muscle damage, which is primarily caused during eccentric muscle action (lowering a weight), is completely natural and nothing to worry about; on the contrary, it initiates a repair and recovery process, which makes the muscle fibers and its structures stronger than they were before, so that they can better withstand renewed stress in future. It is one of the body’s primary adaptionmechanisms to unaccustomed physical activity, and it is this supercompensating repair to these micro-tears which is thought to be the major mechanism to produce long-term muscle growth.

All this may give rise to the notion that the more post-work-out DOMS is experienced, the more micro-tears must have been generated, and the more muscle-growth should result. Or, by the same logic, one may infer that the less DOMS a work-out has produced, the less micro-tears it must have created, and therefore it should not result in significant muscle growth.

However, certain observations, considerations and scientific research cast some doubts on this idea:

Long distance runners often experience severe soreness in their legs and calves, especially after running downhill for an extended distance, but there is no inflammation and hardly any muscle growth. Athletes of equal condition and strength, who perform the same work-out, may experience greatly varying degrees of soreness, but yet accomplish comparable muscle growth. Some gym-enthusiasts feel very sore after an intense work-out in the gym, but show only few micro-tears and little inflammation in the affected muscles; others just feel moderately sore, even after they experienced significant micro-trauma and inflammation. Interestingly, even some individual muscle-groups are apparently more prone to experience soreness than others: the deltoids, f. ex., rarely get severely sore, but generally still grow well when adequately trained, whereas it is very common to get fairly sore after chest work-outs, especially when heavy bench press is included.

What can be determined from all this, is that the quality of a work-out or an exercise can not exclusively be determined by the degree of subsequent DOMS. Muscle soreness often indicates a certain amount of muscle damage and inflammation, which appears to be meaningful to muscle growth, but this does not mean that every work-out causing little or no DOMS is useless.

If optimum hypertrophy is your goal, your should not focus on DOMS, but your objective should be to progressively subject your muscles to maximum overload over time so that they are forced to adapt and grow. It is the degree of overload which determines the amount of muscle growth, not the degree of post-work-out DOMS. Relying mainly on compound exercises performed with high resistance for 8-12 repetitions per set will produce the necessary time under tension to best promote hypertrophy, and is far more effective than low-resistance, high- repetition exercises. Performing challenging work-outs with progressively increasing overload over time will generally involve some post-workout discomfort, but how much or how little DOMS is experienced, is influenced by many factors, including genetics, diet, level of conditioning, training protocol, and recovery regimen. While the occurrence of DOMS may well suggest that your work-out caused sufficient micro-tears and inflammation to initiate the processes to repair and rebuild your muscle tissue, work-outs which cause little soreness may still produce satisfactory growth. As long as you progressively overload your muscles and gradually manage to increase the repetitions of your exercises and the weight-loads that you handle, you will still grow. If you used to experience post-work-out DOMS and its severity gradually diminished over a few weeks of training, it should be a welcome sign that your physical condition is improving; however, if any post-exercise discomfort entirely disappears for a number of training- sessions in a row, this may indicate that no further muscle adaption is required to handle your current work-outs’ demands and that it may be time to further increase your muscles’ overload, or to change your exercise routine, in order to make renewed progress.

On the other hand, if your post-exercise DOMS is so severe that it lasts for 72 hour or more and you can’t even work the affected muscle, when your program has it scheduled to be trained again, it may be a sign that your current work-out intensity exceeds the ability of your muscle to repair itself effectively; accordingly, you may need to reduce your intensity temporarily until such time as you are ready for it.

In any case, never train a muscle again while it is still severely sore, as this indicates that its repair and recovery process is not yet complete; trying to train through soreness will incur risk of injury, and consistently doing so will lead to overtraining with all its negative consequences. Active rest, such as leisurely swimming or cycling, good sleep, massage, and the sufficient and timely intake of high quality proteins and carbs can all help to speed up your muscles’ recuperation.

Last, but not least, don’t try to mitigate DOMS by taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs around your work-outs as this may diminish growth-enhancing training adaptions. The inflammatory processes caused by micro-tearing are vital for your muscle fibers’ repair processes, and impeding them may obstruct muscle growth by as much as 50 %.

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