Ever had a killer session in the gym that's still killing you the next day? And the day after that? There's nothing quite like waking up with muscles too sore to move and dragging yourself around with serious DOMS is almost a workout in itself. After all, we know it's "no pain, no gain" but what does the science say? In this post I'll be taking a deeper look into the phenomenon of Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness: what causes it, what you can do to relieve it and whether you can still make your gains without it.
What causes post-workout DOMS?
Delayed-onset Muscle Soreness is the pain, stiffness and strength loss you feel as a result of performing an unfamiliar eccentric exercise. This could be trying a new lift, load, rep scheme or technique that you don't often include in your routine which you body hasn't yet adapted to. As discussed previously, new training stimuli and increased volume are major keys to muscle growth so if you're making any changes chances are you'll get DOMS from time to time.
When you lift you tear your microscopic muscle fibres (it sounds painful because it is!) but what does this mean on a deeper level? The eccentric exercise, the negative portion of each repetition, causes mechanical damage to the muscle cell membrane which triggers an inflammatory response. During this inflammatory response the chemical mediator prostaglandin is produced which activates pain receptors and leukotrienes, another chemical mediator, are also produced. This consequently attracts neutrophils, a type of white blood cell, to the scene which generates free radicals and exacerbates the damage already done. The result? Inflammation, pain, swelling and pain. Pain.
NB: It's not your muscles that cause pain, it's actually the connective tissue surrounding them. Quit moaning.
How can you treat DOMS?
Warming up and cooling down are key components of any workout but there are a few extra things you can do to help ease the pain:
- Active recovery exercise eg. light cardio, resistance band work and yoga
- Foam rolling
- (Although studies present mixed findings...) Supplementation with BCAAs
Whilst studies have shown that these methods can reduce how sore you feel there is little effect on restoring muscle function. That being said, there's no reason to avoid training if you do have DOMS provided you can still perform exercises with correct technique. No excuses!
Can you make gains without the pain?
Of course you can! The severity of your DOMS and the level of pain you feel is influenced by so many different factors, even your genetics, so is unique to you. The soreness you feel is therefore not a reliable way to measure your progress and is not an accurate reflection of the amount of muscle damage done. Moreover whilst muscle damage is a driver of muscle hypertrophy it is not essential; you can increase "gainage" with just enough damage but not too much so work to find that sweet spot.
Persistence, consistency and plasticity are your real keys to success. Pain along the way is possible, not a requirement, but definitely likely. Keep pushing folks!
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