Should your muscles be sore after every workout and have you walking side to side?
We’ve all been there. The day after a brutal squat session or copious amounts of bench or bicep curls. You’re finding yourself cringing as you walk down a flight of stairs or reach to grab your toothbrush.
The soreness you feel can be attributed to ‘Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness’, otherwise known as DOMs. The feeling often manifests within 6-8 hours post-exercise and peaks up to 48 hours afterward.
What Causes DOMs?
First and foremost, it’s important to understand what doesn’t cause DOMS: lactic acid. It is a common misconception that the accumulation and build up of lactic acid or toxic metabolic waste was the reason for our post-exercise pain.
This is now considered an outdated theory and yet ironically, there is no clear cut winner for the exact mechanism of DOMS. However, there is a widely held belief that it is the product of inflammation (caused by microscopic tears) in the connective tissue elements that sensitise nociceptors and thereby heighten the sensation of pain. Simply put, DOMS appears to occur due to connective tissue microtrauma.
When it comes to how people view DOMS, there are two extremes. There are those that seek it no matter what. They gauge the effectiveness of their training by how sore they are the next day, thinking the sorer they are, the more progress they’ve made. Others avoid DOMS like a bad movie. For them, being sore isn’t pleasurable.
So, which vantage point is correct? - Well, the answer is a loaded one. When it comes to soreness and whether or not it’s mandatory to making progress, the truth is, soreness isn’t a prerequisite for building muscle and there really can be gain without pain. However... in order to progress – whether your goal is to add muscle or lose fat – it's crucial to consistently challenge the body to adapt. This is done by making muscles work, pushing things, pulling things, picking heavy things up and putting them back down. The same people who avoid DOMS or hardly ever experience it, are usually the same people who find themselves wondering why they are never making any progress. When you try a new workout or unfamiliar exercise, your body is going to respond with some feedback. The most common response? Muscle soreness.
Soreness vs. Pain
Important to note, there is a difference between muscle soreness and pain. The former is OK, the latter however (pain) is an indication that the workout or exercise was too advanced, too heavy or that something structurally wrong may have occurred and done damaged (poor technique/form).
How to differentiate?
Any experienced athelete will know the difference between DOMs and pain (injury), but here's a tip: DOMS manifests within 6-8 hours post-exercise and peaks up to 48 hours afterward. An injury can occur shortly after doing the exercise and it will feel 'different' or 'wrong'. It also most likely wont start feeling better after the 48 hour mark like DOMs traditionally would.
If you are in pain or think you have injured yourself, it is important to seek out a reputable health professional to avoid the formation of scar tissue or further damage.
Finding a Balance
DOMS is a normal physiological response by the body, and is a result of what happens when you challenge it. The degree of soreness experienced from one person to another can be highly individual and while soreness (or lack thereof) should never be the sole measurement in determining the effectiveness of a workout. If you find you are never sore following exercise, there’s a good chance you’re not challenging yourself. Perhaps you’re not using heavy enough weight to elicit an adaptive response, or maybe you’re not adding enough variety to your routine.
Conversely, it’s also not ideal to be sore all the time. Ample recovery is just as important, if not more so, to overall success and development.
Seek out discomfort. Cyclists hate stretching because their legs are tight; swimmers hate running because they’re faster in water. Humans love being comfortable, so we keep doing what we’re good at. But once you remove yourself from that comfort zone, you’re building the foundations to embrace your fears and GROW. In every workout, aim to do one exercise that you dread. You’re not simply expanding your skills – you’re preparing yourself for those testing situations in life that can engulf you like a rolling whitewash.