How often has it happened to you?
Maybe you took a long break from training or you tried something new. The next day your muscles are sore like hell, and it’s even worse two days later.
We’ve all been there; high repetition squats, weighted dips, crazy bench presses or preacher curls, and a day later you can barely move. Now you are wondering if you should still train with that pain.
You’re suffering from Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).
You begin to feel DOMS between 12 to 72 hours after training and it is usually accompanied by swelling, and mobility limiting stiffness.
DOMS is a common way to know if you’ve had a productive work-out. When your legs are so sore you have to crawl out of bed the next morning, you know you did something right.
Training day rolls back around and you’re still sore, should you work out with sore muscles?
What You Need to Know
- DOMS is a result of microtrauma in the muscle, the muscle is physically damaged on a cellular level
- Your strength level will be temporarily reduced with the onset of DOMS
- It is possible to grow muscle without feeling extreme soreness
- DOMS will temporarily reduce your range of motion
- DOMS is mainly caused by the eccentric part of an exercise; lowering a weight rather than lifting it
Stressing a muscle beyond what it is accustomed to will cause damage that stimulates an adaptation response. This response is felt as painful soreness that discourages you from moving the affected muscle.
On a microscopic and hormonal level adaptation is your body healing torn and inflamed muscle fibers. White blood cells will clear out damaged tissues as the body secretes hormones like IGF-1 and testosterone to increase protein synthesis which adds new mass.
Increased muscle mass will create greater strength.
This adaptation is the reason we suffer DOMS. But must we experience DOMS in order to progress? No, it is possible to train moderately while gradually increasing reps or weight loads and avoid the pain of DOMS.
The combination of intense soreness and muscle damage will result in reduced strength levels. You will not repeat your personal record for bench press while you’re dealing with DOMS.
Just as with any other kind of physical injury, your performance will suffer until you’re completely healed.
Doms is caused by unaccustomed levels of training stimulation, whether it’s using more weight, higher reps or a greater range of motion. Exercising moderately with slow and gradual increases in training loads can prevent doms completely.
Will anyone actually train moderately for very slow steady gains and to avoid intense doms?
No, of course they won’t. People who lift are already mentally prepared to endure intense discomfort for the sake of rapid gains. Nobody goes into the gym with a patient 5 year plan for progress.
Doms is just another factor you’ll have to consider in the pursuit of improvement. How will doms affect your training? Should you adapt your training to get around the pain, or power through it?
The Importance of Your Range of Motion
Doms will limit a muscle range of motion. Even though the reduction in range is a matter of pain more than actual injury, it is real.
A reduced range of motion becomes a serious issue during exercises where losing control of a weight can result in serious injury.
Dumbbell flyes, while usually considered a safe movement, become a ticket to the emergency room if you lose control at the bottom of the movement. If the pain causes you to overextend past where your body can safely go, you can tear a pec or throw your shoulder.
If you have DOMS they can make you break proper form, now think of breaking form while doing deadlifts, you can hurt your back, rupturing the delicate discs in your spine, ouch.Focus and proper form are the 2 best ways to avoid injury during any training, but become vitally important when you’re range of motion has been compromised by doms.
Eccentric Movement Hurts
It’s counter-intuitive, but lifting a weight and contracting your muscles forcefully isn’t what causes the worst of doms. Doms is caused by controlling the weight on the way down, as the muscle is stretching.
Doubt it? Try a set of dips to failure – but only perform the negative part of the movement, nice and slow. It’ll seem dead easy; you’ll probably knock out more than double the usual number of reps. By the next day, you’ll be a believer.
Does Stretching Help?
Maybe the problem is not warming up enough. Sure, you can lick this doms problem easy with proper stretching and warm-up. Even if you feel doms afterward it probably won’t be as bad as it could have been.
The truth is that scientific research has proven that stretching has absolutely no effect one way or another on doms.
Go ahead, do full splits, toe touches, calf stretches, none of it will prevent or mitigate the symptoms of doms.
Does Massage Prevent DOMS?
Fine, stretching won’t keep the pain away but massage is different; it increases circulation, it detoxifies the muscle, so it’s the way to go right?
Unfortunately, none of that is true. Research has shown that massage will only reduce perceived pain by approximately 30 percent, and do nothing to restore the muscle to an undamaged state.
What Does Help?
We’ve already determined that doms is the symptom of trauma to the affected muscle. Your body will devote resources to clearing waste products and damaged tissue from the area while excreting hormones that will stimulate the growth of new muscle tissue.
We know that there is no guaranteed way to prevent DOMS. If you stress your muscles past what they’re accustomed to, it will hurt later, not always, but if you really worked them hard it is likely to happen.
So what can you do?
Doms is how you feel the microscopic damage done to your muscles by an unaccustomed workload. That damage is slowly healed by the normal process of circulation in your body bringing various healing factors to the affected area. If you want to accelerate this process, you’ll need to increase blood circulation.
Increasing blood circulation is easy to do, simply move your body.
Are you walking like an old man after sets of heavy squats done butt to the floor? Just take a long slow walk and move that blood through your legs.
Is your back so sore you can’t stand holding a bag of groceries? Just do slow toe touches, or do rows with an empty bar. The idea is to get the blood moving without unduly stressing the muscle.
This one sounds easy, just use an ice-pack and keep it on the sore muscle. You’ll be good as new in no time. MMA fighters and football players all sit in ice baths for muscle recovery, so it must work.
Some studies have proven that cold water immersion has minimal effect on the symptoms of doms.
Cold water immersion and ice-baths have tremendous other benefits, but as far as DOMS go, not so much.
Have a Drink!
No, not that kind of drink! Research has shown that caffeine significantly reduced doms on the second and third day of onset.
A hot coffee of coffee has been proven by science to do more for muscle recovery than any amount of ice, ice water or ice packs. Get it? No ice!
Treat yourself to an extra-strong espresso and reduce the amount of time that doms will set you back from hard training.
The same study also demonstrates that sustained consumption of caffeine in the days after training will minimize the perception of pain in the days after training.
Caffeine pills and coffee are supplements you need to include in your muscle building arsenal!
Take a Pill
This is a no-brainer, if you’re in pain take a pain killer.
According to a study by the University of New Mexico non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) such as ibuprofen and aspirin combat the inflammation and swelling which is a hallmark of microtrauma induced doms.
Just take a pill and feel the pain fade away. Just keep in mind that the pain is only being hidden from you, the damage that is causing it is still there.
Pain killers don’t heal you they just make you feel better. But we warned that these NSAID drugs can mask the pain but may inhibit your progress. The jury is still out on that, some researchers found NSAID to inhibit muscle hypertrophy in rats, others suggest it doesn’t affect humans. I think it’s better to avoid taking NSAIDs like Advil if you can, save these for the really extreme cases.
Training with Doms
While complete rest is advisable when you experience doms, it is by no means mandatory. We have seen that research proves that movement is an effective way to treat doms by increasing circulation.
But should you exercise with doms?That all depends on what you mean by exercising:
- An all out balls to the wall session training the affected muscles?
- Hardcore training around the muscles feeling doms?
- An intense but light workout focused on form and muscle contraction rather than heavy weight?
You’ve completely torn yourself up, pecs, quads, biceps or triceps are in agony. All that micro-trauma is making your body adapt with bigger stronger muscles, so let’s do more!
While you can do this and you may even survive it, it isn’t advisable.
Rhabdomyolosis is a breakdown of muscle as a result of overtraining; it can destroy your kidneys and ultimately kill you.
Muscle grows after you train, while you rest and recuperate.Go hardcore, but don’t be hard-headed, remember you need to rest as well as train.
Training Hard Around Doms
This is a grayer area in that you aren’t causing further damage to already hurt muscles. You’re trying to hurt the rest of your major muscle groups just as bad though, while healing previous muscular microtrauma.
Ultimately you are drawing against your recuperative abilities, and this will slow down the healing process that produces gains.
A professional athlete may have no choice, and even benefit from it. But a professional athlete is under strict supervision by a team of people intimately familiar with his limits.
The average gym rat has nothing of the sort behind him, nor does he need it. Training for aesthetic reasons or strength gains in the absence of professional competition shouldn’t be life or death. No one is paying you to get hurt.
This leaves us our last option: lighten up.
Going light doesn’t mean taking it easy. Weight training is a skill, and skills rely on technique. Take advantage of your DOMS, use it as a great excuse to work on your form and develop your mind-muscle connection.
Going light will also give your joints and ligaments a chance to heal while benefiting from the increased circulation of blood and synovial fluid. Think of it as a real tune-up for your body.
The human body cannot be stressed continually and remain healthy. Moderation and balance are the keys to a lifetime of fitness and health.
Sure, go hardcore. Hit the gym hard and leave yourself an exhausted, sweaty heap once in a while, but remember that you’ll have to rest just as hard to recuperate and grow stronger.
- DOMS is a symptom of muscle damage; it hurts when you move it because your body is telling you not to, so you may heal
- DOMS is a sign of a productive workout, but more pain isn’t necessarily more productive
- There are ways to make DOMS less painful, but your muscles are still damaged and need to rest
- Training hard with DOMS can be either foolish or suicidal
- Moderation and balance will keep the gains coming; workout hard and then rest just as hard, you grow bigger and stronger while you rest
- Lifting light weights in a slow and focused manner is just as important for strength and size as lifting fast and heavy
- Don’t forget that ruined joints don’t get better, DOMS is a symptom of muscular overuse and resolves in usually in less than a week. Your joints and tendons have been just as overused, but they heal much more slowly than muscles.
Yes it is fine to work out with DOMS.
Weight training is a fantastic way to achieve strength and look great naked. But any activity taken to an obsessive level will cause more harm than good.
Training with DOMS can definitely be considered bordering on the obsessive.
It’s fine to push through that little bit of soreness once in a while, but training through severe DOMS will tear you down, not build you up.
Simple Solution To Avoid Working Out With Doms
Work out different muscles every workout. That way you give the sore muscle ample time to heal until the next time you train it.
I personally experience DOMS in 80% of my workouts, but since I am working different muscles every workout, I only target the same muscle directly once a week. After a week the sore muscle is already recovered, so I can hit it hard again.
As a side note, remember to take care of your joints; nothing will ruin your health like a debilitating injury that may take years to heal, if it ever does at all. Training while you’re impaired by severe DOMS can result in bad form that may inevitably lead to joint damage.