You pushed yourself harder than usual and you’re feeling the effects. Your muscles are sore and stiff! In fact, it hurts to even get out of bed. Sound familiar? Now you’re torn about whether to train. Should you take a few days off or keep working out as usual?
In reality, neither alternative is best. If you push yourself as hard as usual, despite being sore, your form will likely be off and you’ll risk injury. On the other hand, if you park yourself on the couch, your muscles will tighten up and feel stiffer. Exercise increases blood flow to your aching muscles and can actually make them feel better – as long as you don’t overdo it.
The Phenomenon of DOMS
The unpleasant stiffness and discomfort you experience after a tougher than usual workout is delayed-onset muscle soreness or DOMS. It’s normal to have these symptoms since you’ve stretched and damaged muscle fibers beyond what they’re accustomed to. Although the exact cause of DOMS is still a mystery, it seems that stretching muscle fibers too much creates microscopic tears that stimulate pain receptors. That’s why you’re so stiff and sore!
Fortunately, those tears heal and you start to feel better within 5 to 7 days. DOMS is appropriately named because it doesn’t typically happen right away. You usually don’t feel the soreness until 24 to 48 hours after a hard training session. You’re more likely to experience delayed onset muscle soreness if you do movements that emphasize eccentric contractions, lengthening the muscle while holding a weight or while it’s loaded. An example would be the downward movement of a biceps curl or running downhill.
Working Out with DOMS
When you’re sore, how should you modify your workout? If you’re particularly sore, an active recovery is usually best. The key is to warm up your muscles and increase blood flow to them without overworking them. The first day that you’re sore is usually the worst. That’s a good time to do a workout to stretch those sore, tight muscles. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that a single session of yoga reduced muscle soreness in a group of women after a bout of eccentric exercise. So, yoga may help you temper that soreness and help you keep moving at the same time.
If you’re super-sore and exhausted, skip the weights and simply do some light stretching. Switch perspectives and take a leisurely outdoor walk to get the blood flowing and your body warm. Light activity is better than no activity. Movement may not shorten the duration of your symptoms but it will help reduce the stiffness.
After an active recovery day or two, get back into the swing of things gradually. Don’t try to lift at a high percentage of your one-rep max while you’re still recovering. Your form may be off and your risk of injury higher. What are the best options? How about a circuit workout using lighter weights, around 60% of your one-rep max? You’re working mostly muscle endurance with a load this light but you’re also increasing blood flow to your muscles while getting your heart rate up.
Are you sore all over or is only one group of muscles affected? If one set of muscles is sore, for example, your lower body, switch your focus to your upper body until your lower body recovers. When you do an intense session that will likely leave you sore, work only your upper or lower body. That way if you get sore, you can still work the healthy muscle groups.
Is DOMS Important for Muscle Growth?
There’s a widespread belief that unless you feel sore you’re haven’t pushed yourself hard enough. Although there’s a correlation between delayed-onset muscle soreness and muscle growth, you don’t need to experience soreness to build muscle strength and size. In fact, pushing yourself to the point of feeling sore much of the time may actually be detrimental to muscle growth. Muscles need time to rest and recover. If you’re constantly damaging and disrupting muscle fibers, they don’t get enough time to repair and rebuild.
All in all, it’s not clear whether you need to feel sore for muscles to grow and whether the degree of muscle soreness you feel really correlates with muscle damage. There’s evidence that the pain you feel may actually come from damage to the connective tissue elements rather than the muscles you worked. Plus, we all have a different threshold for pain, making soreness subjective to some degree and not a valid measure of muscle damage or the potential for growth. Plus, there’s a genetic component to how sore you feel after a hard workout. Some people are more prone to developing muscle soreness and have more severe symptoms than others.
Should muscle soreness be a badge of honor? It’s likely that you can develop muscle without experiencing soreness. So, don’t feel like you haven’t worked hard enough if you aren’t sore. If you’re using progressive overload and changing your workouts periodically, you should see results whether you get sore or not. Don’t use muscle soreness as a gauge for how you’re progressing. Also, soreness that first appears DURING a workout isn’t delayed-onset muscle soreness. By definition, DOMS doesn’t show up until a day or two later. If you’re feeling pain during a workout, you may have an injury. Stop what you’re doing and assess the damage.
The Bottom Line
Don’t automatically skip the next workout because you’re sore. Movement can actually relieve the stiffness and make you feel better. Just don’t be a hero and tackle too much when your muscles are stiff and aching. Dial back your training. You’ll have plenty of time to do harder workouts once your muscles have healed and you’re no longer in pain. There’s no shame in a recovery day and it could be just what your muscles need after working so hard.
Strength and Conditioning Journal, vol. 35 No. 5 pp. 16-21 (2013)
The Journal of Experimental Biology 214, 674-679. 2011. doi:10.1242/jeb.050112.
IDEA Health and Fitness Association. “DOMS”
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