We know this feeling, and you probably do too!


No Pain, No Gain?

You are probably familiar with that feeling, a day or two after a hard workout, of barely being able to walk up and down stairs, sit down in a chair, or raise your arms over your head.  This phenomenon is called Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS.  The soreness generally appears 6-8 hours after intense exercise, peaks at approximately 48 hours post-exercise and can last for many days.

Many in the fitness world consider DOMS to be one of the best indicators of training effectiveness. Some of us even rely on it as a primary measure of a successful workout. Many of us even enjoy the feeling, in a twisted, sadistic sort of way.  However, is Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness a necessary side effect to achieving your fitness goals?

First, we need to look at what causes muscle growth or hypertrophy. There are three primary components contributing to muscle growth:

  • Mechanical tension
  • Metabolic stress
  • Muscle damage

How does DOMS factor into these mechanisms?

Let’s take a look-

You’re most likely to experience DOMS after you have performed a new activity or have performed a familiar activity with increased intensity or volume.  Many exercises can produce DOMS, but it appears that exercises that place a lot of emphasis on the eccentric phase, or the lengthening or stretching of the muscle, induce the greatest DOMS response. Some examples are running downhill, lowering weights or lowering down into a squat or push-up position.

Lactic acid buildup in the muscle tissue was once blamed for DOMS, however this archaic theory has largely been rejected. The current thinking is that DOMS is related to muscle damage – microscopic tears in the muscle fiber and surrounding connective tissue (component #3!) – caused by unfamiliar or unaccustomed exercise. The muscle damage that occurs is referred to as EIMD or Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage. Studies suggest that EIMD results in the strengthening of muscle tissue and therefore muscle growth or hypertrophy.  This strengthening, in-turn helps to protect the muscle from further injury. It’s not well understood, but theoretically, DOMS is the result of inflammation that is caused by EIMD.

Makes sense, right?  Here is the caveat: There is much variability in the manifestation of DOMS amongst individuals.  Additionally, some muscles are more prone to DOMS than others for unknown reasons.  Finally, scientifically, there is a poor correlation between DOMS and the time course and extent of EIMD.  So, although DOMS may provide a general indication that some degree of muscle damage has occurred, it cannot be used as a definitive measure of EIMD.

So what?

In conclusion, since muscle damage is a contributing component of muscle growth and DOMS is theorized to be a gross indicator of this damage, DOMS can provide some insight as to whether EIMD has taken place after a workout.  However, caution must be used in drawing qualitative conclusions using DOMS as a gauge of a productive workout.


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