Updated 12/28/20. Everybody has felt muscle soreness a day or so after a workout. But, have you ever asked yourself where is the pain was coming from? Was it lactic acid buildup that made your muscles sore? In this review, I'm going to answer all 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 since at least 1902, the actual reasons why muscles get sore remains a mystery.
What we 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 soreness Some of the more common theories include:
- The torn tissue theory says microscopic tears in the muscles are the cause of DOMS.
- The connective tissue theory states that damage to the connective tissue attached to the muscle is the cause of DOMS.
- The inflammation theory (my favorite!) states 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.
- The calcium theory says calcium released in the cell following damage is the cause.
While each of these theories does 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 the gym but if it snowed tonight and you had to shovel your pavement, you would probably experience DOMS the next because there isn't an exercise in your gym that simulates shoveling snow.
- Of the 3 types of muscle in our bodies—heart muscle, smooth muscle, and skeletal muscle —DOMS affects only skeletal muscle. Skeletal muscle is the muscle attached to the skeleton – biceps, pecs, glutes, etc.
- DOMS does not cause any long-term damage to the muscle.
- DOMS pain is not felt at rest. This is very different from other types of pain. You can use this fact to tell the difference between regular muscle soreness and something more serious like rhabdomyolysis. Pain felt when you are not moving is generally not a good thing.
- Most of the pain associated with DOMS is caused by eccentric muscle actions, which occur when muscle fibers are lengthened as force is applied to them. Eccentric muscle actions (also called “negatives” ) occur when you lower a weight, such as during the descending phase of a squat or a biceps curl.
Is it DOMS or Rhabdo?
Rhabdomyolysis (Rhabdo) is different than DOMS. Rhabdo is a serious medical where your muscles die from too much exercise. I am probably the top expert in the US on rhabdomyolysis. I make this claim after over a decade of educating people about this disorder.
Read my book on rhabdo as well as these other reviews for more insights:
- Spinning and rhabdo
- Mild case of rhabdo
- 5 reasons gyms cause rhabdo
- Rhabdo or DOMS?
- Can you Die From Rhabdo?
When it comes to DOMS, remember, the muscles do not hurt, until you move (or press on the muscles). when you are resting your muscles don't hurt.
This is very different from rhabdomyolysis pain.
When you have rhabdo, your muscles hurt when you are not moving. Remembering this difference can help you tell if its rhabdo or just muscle soreness. See my videos below for more on rhabdo.
Lactic Acid And Muscle Soreness
Lactic acid does not cause DOMS. This is one of the biggest myths in all of fitness. Lactic acid (also called lactate) is built up inside the muscle during intense exercise. It's associated with the burning feeling we feel inside muscles during exercise.
It's actually more complicated than this and is really due to 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, of the metabolic acids made during the exercise are removed and recycled. Lactic acid is not around in great amounts when your muscles start to hurt the next day.
I think the lactic acid myth became popular because people confused muscle burning during exercise with the pain they felt the next day or so (DOMS). The key point to remember is that muscle fatigue and delayed muscle soreness (DOMS) are two different things.
Do You Have To Be Sore After Exercise?
It's a myth that your muscles have to be sore to get benefits from exercise. There is no good proof muscle soreness is needed for muscles to improve strength. This is very important for personal trainers to understand.
Unfortunately, nobody ever tells them this fact and this can lead to injuries in their clients.
It's also a myth once you stop feeling muscle soreness from your workouts, the exercise program is no longer effective. Don't use muscle soreness as a gauge at the effectiveness of a workout.
What Happens When You're Not Sore Anymore?
Many people have the idea that they need to change their workout when they no longer experience muscle soreness. This is not necessarily true. Do not make the mistake of equating lack of muscle soreness with lack of fitness gains. You can still get bigger, stronger, faster (to quote that great documentary) without feeling muscle soreness.
Also, don't make the mistake of thinking great workouts have to make you really sore the next day. They don't.
Sometimes people like to change up their workouts when they no longer free sore because they think they need to confuse their muscles.
Let me take this opportunity to bust a big myth: there is no such thing as “muscle confusion.” I own many exercise sciences books and none of them contains the principle of muscle confusion. As I see it, the idea of muscle confusion was first widely publicized to help sell P90X workout DVDs.
If you want to alter your workout to keep things interesting or challenge yourself or even reduce getting an over use injury, that's great. Just don't change your workout because you no longer feel sore any longer.
Can Supplements Reduce Muscle Soreness?
Are there any supplements that can help DOMS? Below is a summary of some which have been looked at.
Some people take vitamin C to reduce muscle soreness. The idea is since vitamin C is needed to make connective tissue and since there is damage to connective tissue during DOMS, taking vitamin C might reduce muscle pain after exercise. Some researchers in the 1950s found vitamin C might reduce DOMS but this study been criticized by other researchers. Since then, other studies have shown 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.
See my review of Tart Cherry Juice for more info.
Protein And Muscle Soreness
Most people who workout, use extra protein to help build and rebuild muscles. Since muscle contains protein, some have wondered if extra protein after exercise can reduce muscle soreness from occurring. So far, the answer seems to be protein doesn't help DOMS. If you like to have a protein shake after workouts, great, just don't expect it to reduce your post-exercise muscle soreness.
One supplement 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. Unfortunately, the FDA no longer permits Anatabloc to be sold in the US.
Oh sure, if you search long enough you are bound to find a study showing some supplement reduces muscle soreness. The problem is most supplements don't have many studies to back up their claims. This makes me less likely to believe any supplement can help.
How To Prevent DOMS
Can we prevent DOMS from occurring? Below are some things you can do to help and other things that probably won't work.
Start slowly. Beginning a new exercise program slowly is one of your best defenses against delayed muscle soreness. 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 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.
I feel circuit training is one of the best ways to minimize muscle soreness the next day. In a circuit training program, you pick 8-12 different exercises and perform only 1 set of each. Doing this, spreads the exercise out over a wide range of muscles, reducing its ability to cause muscle soreness. There are many health benefits to circuit training too, making it an ideal way for many people to train.
Massage And DOMS
Can massage help sore muscles? This is a bit fuzzy. There is research showing massage can help DOMS and there is other research showing it doesn't. It's good to remember that deep tissue massage may even cause muscle soreness if you are not used to it. 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.
Remember, it's when you do something you are not used to – anything – which can cause muscles to be sore.
Ice Baths And Muscle Soreness
Most athletes have probably spent time in a cold plunge or cold water bath. The idea is the ice-cold water reduces inflammation and hopefully muscle soreness. While ice baths after exercise may reduce inflammation, I think the effects of cold on muscle pain needs better study. In one review of previous studies, body cryotherapy reduced muscle pain by 80%.
Ironically another study of whole-body cryotherapy showed it did not work. Other research has noted ice baths don't reduce muscle soreness either. For those considering this, at least one study has linked ice baths to rhabdomyolysis in athletes.
Yoga And Muscle Soreness
In a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers noted strength trainers who did yoga after exercise had more muscle soreness. Remember anything that we are not used to can cause DOMS. I'm sure once people get used to yoga movements, DOMS would stop.
Stretching And DOMS
It's a common belief that stretching reduces muscle soreness – but does it? A lot of people think so but many studies find stretching does not reduce DOMS. It turns out, stretching can actually CAUSE DOMS if you are not used to stretching.
The bottom line on stretching is if you want to stretch, great. Just do it after your workout when your muscles are warmer—and start out slowly to reduce DOMS from happening.
Why Do Muscles Get Sore After Exercise?
As I often say in classes I teach, delayed muscle soreness (DOMS) is one of the biggest mysteries in the world of exercise science. It usually happens after you do something you are not used to doing. That can be exercise -or ANY activity you have not done before or done in a long time.
Yes, eccentric muscle actions (“negatives”) are associated with DOMS, but it's more important to remember it happens when you do stuff you are not used to doing.
Delayed muscle soreness is likely the result of many different things happening inside your muscles as you repair the muscle damage that occurred because of the activity. It's not just one thing that causes the pain. Hopefully, this review has helped you realize this very common experience is much more complicated than most people realize.