How to Deal With Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)

Fun fact: I initially tried to spell it “delaid.”  That should tell you where my head’s at today.

You know what feels awesome?  The Burn- that slight burning sensation you get when the muscle you’re working crosses the lactic acid threshold.  Also awesome: The Burn’s close cousin, The Pump.

You know what’s not awesome?  Having trouble walking two days after your workout because of delayed onset muscle soreness.  DOMS usually kicks in a day or two after a workout, and can easily last for two or three days after that, making it a real drag on your quality of life- not to mention the quality of subsequent workouts.

Here’s how to make that not happen.

What Causes DOMS

Exercises causes it.  But not just any exercise.  As you’ve probably noticed, some workouts make you feel beat when they’re over, but fine the next day.  Yet with other workouts, you feel fine immediately after they’re over, and the next day it feels like you’ve been stabbed through the quads with a pitchfork.  What gives?

That feeling of fatigue and soreness immediately after a workout is primarily a factor of total training stress.  The harder you train, the more fatigued you’ll feel.  Generally, heavier sets with longer rests will produce more soreness, while metabolic intensity circuits with shorter rests will produce less muscular soreness and more tiredness.  But overall, its a matter of you train harder, you get more fatigued.

DOMS is different.  It isn’t caused by total training volume, but rather by a specific component of training: eccentric contractions.  Eccentric movement- the lowering of the weight- causes the vast majority of delayed onset muscle soreness.  Isometric (static) contractions are a minor contributor to DOMS, while concentric movement- raising the weight- doesn’t contribute to it at all. 

There are two other factors that go into it though: your overall level of muscular development, and your level of adaptation to the specific movement involved.  Trainees will generally experience less DOMS as they become more advanced, and they’ll experience more DOMS from a novel stimulus, and less of it after they keep doing the same exercises and workouts for a while.

Put all of that together, and you can largely avoid DOMS by minimizing the eccentric component of exercise, at least until your body has had time to adapt to an exercise.

But should you do that, or is DOMS a necessary part of the adaptation process?

No, It Isn’t.  Screw DOMS.

Here’s a funny story I learned back when I was studying marketing.  Back when toothpaste was first invented, it didn’t foam. It worked just fine, but since the benefits of using toothpaste are primarily long-term rather than immediate, people didn’t have any real sense that the toothpaste was working.  So some clever marketing exec added an extra ingredient to make the toothpaste foam up in people’s mouths while they brushed.  Now people associate that foam with getting their teeth clean, even though it’s totally superfluous.

Many people believe that DOMS is caused by lactic acid buildup.  This theory was disproven decades ago- lactic acid causes the burning sensation you feel when you work a muscle long enough, and it gets cleared from your muscles within about an hour after a workout.  In other words, the effects of lactic acid are immediate, not delayed. 

Actually, DOMS is caused by muscle damage– small tears, microtrauma, and muscle breakdown that occurs during and shortly after a bout of exercise. 

Now you’re probably thinking that that means DOMS is good, or at least necessary- because muscle damage is what causes muscle growth, right?  That’s what pretty much everyone- including me- thought up until just a few years ago.  But it turns out that muscle damage isn’t necessary for muscle growth.  In fact, muscle damage doesn’t seem to help muscle growth at all.

Yes, muscle damage spurs your muscles to synthesize more protein in order to fix the damage- but muscle damage itself means your muscles are breaking down proteins.  So net protein synthesis doesn’t go up- the effect of muscle damage on net protein synthesis is either neutral or slightly negative. 

Now, it is true that eccentric-accentuated training lets you do more work and reach higher levels of muscle activation.  The drawback is that if it causes DOMS, then the benefits are counterbalanced by the greater muscle catabolism, as well as the impact that DOMS will have on subsequent workouts as well as the overall pain in the ass (literally if you were squatting) of feeling sore all the time.

In short, DOMS is like the foam in your toothpaste- a superfluous marker than people think is a positive indicator, but that really doesn’t help anything.

The Final Word on DOMS

Avoid it as much as possible.  It’s not good or even necessary.

This doesn’t mean DOMS can always be prevented- you’ll get it sometimes, particularly if you’re a novice trainee, when you start a new program, or when you start doing a new exercise that you’re not accustomed to.  So it’s sometimes unavoidable to some degree, but it’s never desirable since it slows your recovery and also feels bad. 

There are three keys to avoiding DOMS. 

First, don’t switch up your exercises and workouts more than you have to.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the new workouts are more effective because they hurt more. They’re not, and switching workouts every month is a great way to give yourself an illusion of progress.  In truth, gains from the first 2-4 weeks of a program are mainly due to improvements in technique and neurological activation, while muscle hypertrophy only powers up after those first few weeks are over and the DOMS has started to subside. 

Second, match training stress to your training age.  Newbies should train a muscle group twice a week, intermediate trainees several times a week, and advanced trainees at least five days a week.  Give yourself enough time to recover, and don’t try to follow a program that’s too advanced for you.

Third, lower the weight quickly to minimize the eccentric component of exercises to avoid DOMS.  This is particularly important if you’re a novice trainee or doing new exercises.  You can start slowing down the eccentric in order to emphasize it more once you’re more advanced and/or adapted to that specific movement.  In other words, emphasize the eccentric only as much as you can get away with without experiencing DOMS.

The one exception: injury rehab.  If you’re rehabbing an injured limb, or you have joint issues like arthritis, you might want to use eccentric-accentuated training with really light weights.  That’s fine, but if the weights are light enough it should still cause very little DOMS.

Don’t listen to the muscleheads who mindlessly spout off cliches like “no pain no gain,” or “go heavy or go home.”  Some pain is good- like the burn.  But delayed onset muscle soreness?  You don’t need it.