Everybody has felt muscle soreness a day or so after a workout. But, have you ever asked yourself what that muscle pain was? Where is the pain coming from? Was it lactic acid that made your muscles sore? Let me see if I can answer some of your muscle soreness questions by telling you the real story—as much as we know—about this mysterious process.
The feeling of pain, stiffness in muscles that occurs a day or so after a workout is known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). It’s ironic that while DOMS has been studied by scientists since at least 1902, the actual reasons why muscles get sore remains a mystery.
What we do know is that DOMS is a complex biological process, and every piece of the puzzle uncovered, makes it all the more mysterious. Many theories exist to explain muscle sorness Some of the more common theories include:
- The torn tissue theory which advocates that microscopic tears in the muscles are the cause of DOMS.
- The connective tissue theory subscribes to the idea that damage to the connective tissue attached to muscle is the cause of DOMS.
- The inflammation theory (my personal favorite!) which states that the muscle pain felt during DOMS is simply a by-product of our body's attempt to fix the damage that has been caused by a workout.
While each of these theories do explain some aspects of DOMS, no theory fully explains the entire process.
Facts About DOMS
- DOMS pain usually occurs within the first 24 to 72 hours after exercise. Specifically, DOMS can occur following overly difficult exercise or any activity that we are not used to. For example, you could do every exercise in your gym but if it snowed tonight and you had to shovel your pavement, you would probably experience DOMS the next day or so because there isn't an exercise in your gym that mimics shoveling the snow.
- Of the three types of muscle in our bodies—heart muscle, smooth muscle (which lines our blood vessels) and skeletal muscle (which is attached to our skeletons, such as biceps and triceps muscle)—DOMS effects only skeletal muscle. Weird huh!
- DOMS does not cause in any long-term damage to muscle.
- DOMS pain is not felt at rest. This is very different from other types of pain.
- Most of the pain associated with DOMS is caused by eccentric muscle actions, which occur as muscle fibers are lengthened as force is applied to them. Eccentric muscle actions (they are called “negatives” in the gym) occur, when you lower a weight, such as during the descending phase of a squat or a biceps curl.
It’s worth nothing that some lady-only fitness centers like Curves, do not use eccentric exercise in their workouts because they are trying to cut down on DOMS. This is actually pretty smart because it tells people that exercise doesn't have to hurt to work
Tip. Muscle soreness doesn't hurt when the muscle is not being moved. This is very different from rhabdomyolysis pain which does hurt. Rhabdo is VERY serious so do read that post when you are finished here.
Lactic Acid And Muscle Soreness
Lactic acid does not cause DOMS. This is one of the biggest myths in all of fitness. Lactate (not lactic acid) is built up inside the muscle during intense exercise. Its correlated with the burning feeling felt inside muscles during exercise but it's really other things called hydrogen atoms (H+) made during ATP/CP breakdown that appear to cause the burning.
The increased acidity of hydrogen atoms also plays a role in muscle fatigue during exercise, But, about an hour after exercise, most, if not all, of the metabolic acids made during exercise are removed and recycled. This myth became popular I think because people confused muscle burning/pain during exercise with the pain they felt days later (DOMS). The key point to remember is that muscle fatigue and delayed muscle soreness (DOMS) are two different things.
Supplements For DOMS
Are there any supplements that can help DOMS? Below is a summary of a few things scientists have looked at:
Some people take vitamin C to reduce DOMS pain. The idea here is that since vitamin C is needed to make connective tissue and since there is damage to connective tissue in DOMS, taking vitamin C might reduce muscle pain after exercise. There was a study from the 1950s that found vitamin C might reduce DOMS but its been criticized by other researchers. Other studies since then have shown that vitamin C does not reduce DOMS.
Tart Cherry Juice
If you are eating cherries, it appears that it takes at least 46 cherries per day to have an effect according to preliminary studies. Here is my review of Tart Cherry Juice for more info.
One supplement that some people have become interested in is a product called Anatabloc. Anatabloc contains anatabine, a compound isolated from tobacco. Preliminary research appears to show that Anatabine appears to reduce inflammation.
Since inflammation occurs during DOMS, would Anatabloc help? At least one study, published in 2013 noted that Anatabloc did not help DOMS pain after exercise. For more information see my Anatabloc review (this link goes to my other website Supplement-Geek.com).
How To Prevent DOMS
Can we prevent DOMS? Below are some things you can do to help and other things that probably won't work.
Start slowly. Beginning an exercise program slowly is one of your best defenses against DOMS. For example, if you performed one set of a chest press at a light weight – say 12-15 repetitions—you would feel much less DOMS 24-72 hours later than if you had performed 3 sets of 12-15 reps.
Also, if you have DOMS right now and do the same exercise that caused the DOMS—but at a lower intensity—this can also make the muscles feel better several hours later.
Massage And DOMS
This is a fuzzy area. There is research that finds that massage may help DOMS and other research that indicates that it does not. Because there are many different types of massage, this may be the reason behind the conflicting findings. Related to this some research finds whole body vibration helps muscle soreness also.
Yoga And DOMS
In a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers noted that strength trainers who did yoga after exercise had DOMS. Remember anything that we are not used to can cause DOMS. I'm sure once people get use to yoga movements, DOMS would stop.
Stretching And DOMS
Does stretching muscle soreness? A lot of people think so but many studies finds that stretching does not reduce DOMS. It turns out that stretching can actually CAUSE DOMS if you are not used to stretching! The bottom line on stretching is if you want to do it great. Just do it after your workout when your muscles are warmer—and start out slowly to reduce DOMS from happening.