Phoenix Ignition Fitness Company

Fitness by the Fire: What muscle soreness means for your muscles

by Ron Kennedy • December 27, 2017
Muscle soreness. Even reading those words together makes me want to stretch out these old shoulders. Let’s be honest, muscle soreness goes hand in hand with a fitness lifestyle, and even the super elites within the fitness world must face this foe from time to time. As a fitness professional, often I am asked the question of “When does this get easier, and when will my muscles stop hurting?” Typically, I respond with a joke, but I follow with assuring our training clients that though they will adapt to a more advanced fitness lifestyle in short time, there is no way to completely eliminate muscle soreness if they intend to push maximum levels of fitness. Our programs consist of deep vascularity stretching following a training session, and though it certainly helps in loosening a tense muscle, it is not a miracle cure to prevent DOMS.

DOMS you say…??

Delayed onset muscle soreness, more commonly known as DOMS, is one of two types of soreness we often experience when working out.
The other type is acute muscle soreness, which you feel during or shortly after a workout and that disappears again soon after, it’s caused by the buildup of fluids.
DOMS is the kind of insidious, longer-lasting soreness we experience the day after a workout and that may last one day, or several.

Exactly what causes DOMS is not entirely understood, but exercise researchers have a few ideas:
  • Eccentric muscle movement. One idea is that DOMS is caused by eccentric motions during exercise. The eccentric motion is the action where the muscle lengthens, rather than shortens. It’s what you experience in your calf muscles when you go down the stairs as opposed to up the stairs.
  • New movement, new load. Another idea is that a new type of exercise or an increased load that you aren’t used too can trigger DOMS.
What Muscle Soreness is Trying to Tell You...
  • Damaged muscles. DOMS is also thought to be caused by damaged muscle. Increased enzyme concentrations present in the blood after heavy exercises can contribute to the breakdown of muscle tissue. Intense exercise can cause little tears in the muscle and that leads to pain.
What about the effects of lactic acid?

Lactic acid buildup is often blamed as the culprit in the soreness we feel the day after an intense workout, but it has nothing to do with the misery and pain.

Lactic acid buildup only occurs with acute muscle soreness (which is often the case for more sport specific type of conditioning, and it goes away either immediately after the workout or within a few hours of the workout.

Therefore, traditional methods to relieve acute muscle soreness, like stretching and icing, are not very effective for relieving DOMS.

DOMS is actually more of a response to the damage done to the muscles and not so much the buildup of lactic acid like with acute muscle soreness.

Here is the trap: You’re doing very well with your training plan and feeling good. Had a great training session, and you’re ready for the next day… when a bout with DOMS becomes a major roadblock.

When your suffering from DOMS, you have a reduced ability to produce force. This translates to losing some strength and range of motion. The strength will slowly start to return after a few days, but it can be very difficult to push yourself.

Therefore, it is important to give yourself recovery time or to alternate muscle groups. To make gains in training, it is important to prevent or at least minimize DOMS. The best way to do this is to start slowly with new movements and exercises and gradually increase intensity during the first few weeks.
For a strong, well-conditioned athlete there is some benefit to going all out and being sore, but for newbies and mere mortals, this is not usually a good idea. Another issue with DOMS is that the decreased muscle strength can mess with form, which can lead to further injury.

Many body builders, professional athletes, and even casual gym attendees like to live by the classic “no pain, no gain” philosophy, or at least to pretend to not feel the pain (rolls eyes). But it’s important to understand what your pain is trying to tell you and why.

While DOMS is usually not a good thing, it also isn’t all bad. Muscle soreness may be a sign that something in a workout went wrong, such as improper form and inappropriate progression, like trying to lift a weight that is way too heavy. You could then consider DOMS to be a protective mechanism telling you to practice better form the next time you perform a certain movement. Another side benefit is that your muscles will be better prepared for those same moves in subsequent workouts.

However, when DOMS has you in its grips, it can mess up form, halt workout progression, and even cancel entire days of planned fitness sessions. In other words, this kind of pain can be counterproductive and in fact, lead to no gain. Pain is only temporary.

While you recover from the soreness, you should still stay active and do low-intensity workouts such as walking and yoga. Anything that doesn't put a heavy load back on the affected muscles is ideal. Of course, sometimes you are just too sore to be effective or follow proper form; sometimes you just need a rest day(a practice we preach with EVERY client we work with).