Many people use muscle soreness (DOMS) as an indicator of whether they’ve worked out hard enough. If they’re not sore, they feel like they slacked off. If you’re sore after a workout, it means you’ve worked your muscles beyond the point they’re accustomed to – but is the opposite true? If your muscles aren’t sore does it mean you haven’t worked hard enough?
What Causes Muscle Soreness after a Workout?
When you feel sore after a workout, you’re experiencing a phenomenon called DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness). DOMS happens when you stretch a muscle under enough tension that small micro-tears occur in the muscle fibers you worked. The amount of micro-trauma a muscle is exposed to is greatest during the eccentric phase of a movement, the movement you use to lower a weight. You don’t just encounter this type of stress during strength-training, running, especially downhill, when you aren’t conditioned can traumatize muscle fibers and lead to DOMS.
As a result of microtrauma and microscopic tearing of muscle fibers, your body mounts an inflammatory response. This brings in cellular “reinforcement” to help repair the damaged tissue. This usually occurs between 24 and 72 hours after a workout and usually lingers for several days up to a week. It’s this repair process that some experts believe leads to muscle growth. The inflammatory process also causes fluid retention and swelling. One explanation for the pain is swelling puts pressure on nerves surrounding the muscles, leading to soreness.
Because the inflammatory response to stretching a muscle under tension leads to repair and repair leads to growth, you may think a lack of soreness means your muscles aren’t being challenged enough to grow. Inflammation does play a role in muscle growth. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications like Ibuprofen block enzymes involved in inflammation and at higher doses, some studies show they reduce muscle growth. This doesn’t appear to be a problem at lower doses.
Can Muscle Hypertrophy Occur without Inflammation?
Although inflammation may be linked to muscle growth, it appears that muscle protein synthesis and muscle hypertrophy can occur even in the absence of inflammation. At the same time, you can have muscle inflammation without feeling sore. So even if it doesn’t hurt when you move a few days later, it doesn’t mean you haven’t worked your muscles hard enough to induce micro-trauma and inflammation. Likewise, just because you don’t feel the effects, it doesn’t mean your muscles aren’t growing. The take-home message is this. You can get muscle growth in the absence of pain and soreness. The converse is also true. You can have muscle tissue damage that doesn’t lead to growth. This is more likely to occur if you overtrain by repeatedly working the same muscle fibers without giving them adequate time to recover. When you overtrain, it increases muscle protein breakdown and interferes with muscle growth. Muscle soreness can also be a sign that you’re performing movements incorrectly and that’s certainly not optimal for muscle growth. It also increases your risk of injury.
DOMS is Most Pronounced When You First Start Working Out
In general, you experience the most soreness when you first start a new workout program or challenge your muscles in a new way. Over time your muscles “adapt” and you stop getting sore even though you’re gradually increasing the tension you place them under. Does that mean your muscles aren’t growing? Nope. If the workout feels challenging and you’re pushing hard enough that the last rep or two is difficult, you’re still giving the muscle the stimulus it needs to grow. If you feel sore after every workout, you’re probably pushing yourself to the point that your muscles aren’t recovering fully. That can make it harder to build lean body mass.
Reasons Monitoring DOMS Can Be Useful
Even though not being sore is not an indicator that you’re not working hard enough to build lean body mass, you can use muscle soreness to “fine-tune” your workout. If you’re not new to resistance training and you feel sore after every workout, you’re probably pushing too hard. Some degree of DOMS is normal when you start a new routine or push harder than you normally would but daily DOMS isn’t. It means you’re not giving your muscles enough recovery time.
The other way monitoring DOMS is useful is it tells you if you’re doing the exercise right. If you’re performing exercises that target your shoulders and you’re experiencing muscle soreness in your triceps, you may be using incorrect form. Where you’re sore gives you a general idea of whether you’re targeting the muscles you’re trying to target.
How Much DOMS You Experience is Dependent on a Number of Factors
If you’re eating an anti-inflammatory diet, eating foods rich in omega-3, drinking tart cherry juice, sipping lots of green tea or chocolate milk, you may experience less DOMS due to the anti-inflammatory effects of this type of diet. That doesn’t mean you aren’t experiencing muscle growth. These foods help to block inflammation. Plus, we all have a different tolerance to pain, what’s significant soreness to one person is barely noticeable to another. Pain and soreness is a subjective thing and not feeling it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not working hard enough.
The Bottom Line?
Don’t use muscle soreness or DOMS as an indicator of whether you’re working hard enough to get muscle growth. Focus on progressively overloading your muscles so they have to adapt. With adaptation comes growth. If you’re experiencing soreness every time you work out, give your muscles more time to recover. Your muscles need the right combination of stimulus and recovery time to maximize your gains.
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