Dealing with DOMS
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is characterized by sore muscles stemming from a workout 24 to 72 hours prior. The causes of DOMS have been debated throughout the years, as intersession lactic acid buildup during intense workouts has been wrongly speculated to cause delayed onset muscle soreness. Though lactic acid production surges in active muscles during high intensity exercise, it is rapidly removed following the cessation of exercise, dissipating in as little as one hour in highly conditioned individuals. Lesser trained individuals are intolerant to high intensity exercise and perhaps exercise conducted at moderate intensities, as lactic acid will accumulate faster than it clears, thus inducing fatigue and perhaps muscular soreness.
Exercise conducted at maximal intensities, such as loads lifted at 85 percent or greater, sprinting, or jumping activities, that utilize fast twitch muscle fibers will trigger greater amounts of lactic acid production via the lactate dehydrogenase enzyme present in Type II muscle fibers. Down the line, this can create soreness. However, with individuals who are regularly exposed to intense repeated bouts of exertion such as Olympic lifters, sprinters, and powerlifters, delayed onset muscle soreness seems to be less plausible.
It has also been widely speculated that DOMS is the result of intense muscular contractions, specifically prolonged eccentric contractions in which a muscle’s elastic elements lengthen. These contractions precede eccentric transition concentric movement patterns such as squats and presses. This explains why your hamstrings are sore two days after a heavy squat session. They were put under an intense stretch as you sat back into your squat upon descent. Eccentric stress triggers the leaking of calcium from the sarcoplasm, causing it to collect in the mitochondria, thus inhibiting oxidative phosphorylation. The collection of calcium degrades contractile proteins within the muscle fibers and creates an acute inflammatory process, in which histamine and prostaglandins are produced. Prostaglandins are of particular interest, as they influence the activity of smooth and relevant skeletal muscle, calcium movement, and the inflammatory process. The inflammatory response, which is drawn out for hours following exercise, results in swelling and pain that may take a few days to heal.
Training with DOMS isn’t conducive to improving performance. More importantly, training with DOMS can set the stage for injury, as the muscles haven’t fully recuperated from the structural damage from the previous session. Jumping right into another workout while sore will prohibit adaptations such as improvements in neural, structural, and cellular functioning requisite to strength, hypertrophy, or power development.
How to Deal
Sufficient rest is critical, as is easing into your training program. Here are some commonsense suggestions to stave off debilitating soreness following workouts.
- Employ progressive overload. Incremental progression in loads or reps should be gradual and, if training for strength, percentage based. If hypertrophy is your goal, gradually incorporate volume. If strength endurance or anaerobic conditioning is your goal, gradually reduce work to rest ratios to slowly increase a session’s density.
- Special methods such as super sets, drop sets, tri-sets, clusters, rest pause sets, pre- and post-exhaustion techniques, and agonist pairings should be used sparingly by advanced trainees and not at all in beginners or those starting a new program.
- Reduce eccentric stress. Negative work is good, as it forces your body to stabilize an external load. However, is there really a need to drag out the eccentric portions of a movement in every workout? For beginners, it’d be prudent to avoid significant eccentric work for the first one to two months.
- Monitor nutrition, hydration, and supplementation status. Recent research has indicated that BCAA supplementation might suppress muscle damage (1). Previously, creatine supplementation wasn’t proven to attenuate eccentric induced muscular soreness.
- Recent research suggests that stretching alone may not help to reduce soreness following exercise (2). Prior research showed that intense static stretching could actually exacerbate muscular soreness (3).
- While ibuprofen was proven helpful in combating DOMS, it doesn’t contribute to restoring muscular function (4). Furthermore, ibuprofen carries numerous risks. Although non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID), which is the class of drugs that ibuprofen falls under, reduces inflammatory response by way of decreasing prostaglandin production, it does so by blocking an enzyme called cyclooxygenase (COX). COX is related to many physiological functions including homeostasis, gastrointestinal and renal tracts, platelet function, and macrophage differentiation (5). Individuals who consume NSAID regularly or in vast amounts place themselves at greater risk of upper gastrointestinal tract damage. Ibuprofen should be used infrequently, if at all. Save it for acute injuries such as sprains and strains, not muscle soreness.
- Incorporate low intensity aerobic work or non-exercise-physical activity (NEPA) between resistance training workouts. I have found that when I keep moving, I think less about being sore. Not only that but moving around and performing low intensity work will help flush out residual metabolic waste, which is contributing to soreness.
- Shimomura Y, Inaguma A, Watanbe S, et al (2010) Branched-chain amino acid supplementation before squat exercise and delayed-onset muscle soreness. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 20:236–44.
- Herbert RD, de Norohna M, Kamper SJ (2011) Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 7.
- Smith LL, Brunetz MH, Cheiner TC, et al (1993) The effects of static and ballistic stretching on delayed onset muscle soreness and creatine kinase. Res Q Exerc Sport 64:103–07.
- Tokmakidis SP, Kokkinidis EA, Smilios I, et al (2003) The effects of ibuprofen on delayed muscle soreness and muscular performance after eccentric exercise. J Strength Cond Res 17:53–9.
- Gillepsie H (2011) Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. ACSMs Health Fit J 15:46–7.