DOMS 101: all you need to know about muscle soreness
Hello hello Fit Fam!
I hope you are all doing well! I've been getting a lot of Instagram DMs about muscle soreness lately (lol I say this about every subject, but it's true!) so here's a one-stop-shop for all things muscle soreness! This post should answer any questions about what muscle soreness is, why it occurs, and how you can minimize it. This is a MUST READ, especially if you're new to fitness or if you find yourself absolutely deceased following your workouts!
Let's get started!
all you need to know about muscle soreness
I. What is Muscle Soreness (DOMS)?
So you've probably heard the term DOMS thrown around quite a bit in the fitness world, but no one ever says what it actually stands for. DOMS is an acronym for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, which is a super common result of physical activity that stressed your muscles past what they're used to. DOMS is caused by micro-tears in your muscles (sounds scary but it's totally normal!) after you've engaged in intense exercise. These small tears are actually part of the muscle growth process! The small damage to your muscles from a stimulus to which they're not adapted tells them that they need to grow in order to accommodate that new stimulus. And BOOM! Muscle growth occurs! DOMS typically develops 12 to 24 hours following a tough workout and can linger for two to four days. Common symptoms include slight swelling, reduced range of motion, and increased tenderness over the muscle groups affected.
Bottom Line: Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) simply indicates that your muscles are adapting to your new training regimen.
II. How to Combat DOMS
Now that we're all clear on what DOMS is and what causes it, let's talk about what we all want to know: how can we get relieve it?! Sadly, very little is known about DOMS so there's not much you can do to completely get rid of it. However, there are methods, some more powerful than others, that you can use to reduce DOMS. So I've put together a nice list of the methods that have worked for me from experience for you all to try. Let's dive in!
Method #1. Warm Up Adequately Before You Workout
What to Do: Prior to any workout, you should make sure your muscles are warm and ready to go. This can be most effectively achieved through a process called muscle activation, which makes sure you're turning on the right muscles so that they fire optimally during your workout. Muscle activation should not be difficult, as it is only a warm up. For a visual representation of what I mean, check out my exact complete glute activation routine that I do before every leg day HERE:
Why: Muscle activation and warming up your muscles prior to working out is a super effective method for reducing DOMS post-workout. Remember that DOMS results from small tears in muscle fibers, so if you start your workout without any sort of warmup, you're more likely to experience tears in your muscle fibers, thus increasing DOMS.
Bottom Line: Warming up via activation exercise prior to your workout can decrease your chances of severe DOMS.
Method #2. Stretch and/or Foam Roll After You Workout
What to Do: Try adding in 10-15 minutes of stretching following your workout. Focus on stretching the muscle groups that you stressed that day; if you did a quad heavy workout, stretch primarily your legs with a focus on your quads. Before or after you're finished stretching, you can also try foam rolling some of your more sore areas. I usually foam roll my lower back and all sides of my glutes.
Why: According to some scientific studies, stretching post-workout can reduce DOMS, but not by much. It's definitely worth it to give it a try, as some people do experience more relief than others (and you could be one of those people!), but I would not use this method alone. Try combining it with some other methods on this list for a more effective approach to decreasing DOMS.
Bottom Line: Stretching and foam rolling post-workout may help reduce DOMS if you're in a lucky group of people! (I'm in that group!)
Method #3. Stay Hydrated
What to Do: Throughout your workout, and throughout the day, and just every day in general lol, make sure you're drinking enough water. Take some sips (at least!) in-between every set of your workout to make sure you're getting enough water into your system.
Why: Muscles need water too! Dehydrated muscles become tight and are at a higher risk for both micro tears (DOMS) and larger tears (injury). Dehydration aggravates DOMS since the muscles are more stiff, thus increasing the amount of pain and soreness that you feel.
Bottom Line: Stay hydrated to keep DOMS from going crazy!
Method #4. Try Heat Therapy
What to Do: In the hours and days following your initial DOMS-causing workout, try placing a heat pack on the areas where you're sore. If you don't have a legit heat pack, fill up a ziplock bag with hot water and place the water-filled bag it into a second ziplock (to prevent leaks) for a DIY heat pack! Apply to the affected areas for ~20 minutes. It is important NOT to apply heat immediately following a workout because it can increase inflammation.
Why: Heat acts as a vasodilator, meaning it causing the blood vessels in the area where it is applied to open wider, thus increasing blood flow to the area. While the scientific jury is still out on finding concrete evidence for heat and muscle soreness, it has been concluded that heat causes muscles to relax, which can relieve some of the inflammation cause by the micro-tears. Heat is not a cure for DOMS, but it can certainly be a treatment!
Bottom Line: Try placing a heat pack on the affected muscles a few hours after your workout to increase circulation to your muscles and relieve the effects of DOMS.
Method #5. Keep Moving!
What to Do: It can be tempting to stop working out all-together once you start experiencing DOMS, but if you can, try to push through it! Use some of the tools above to keep up with your routine to help in the long run.
Why: We learned in the first section of this post that DOMS is caused by new stimulus and stress placed on your muscles. So if you stopped working out every time you experienced DOMS, by the time it wore off and you started working out again, your body would just be introduced to another new stimulus and you would start experiencing DOMS again! The best thing to do to prevent serious DOMS (like what happens when you just start working out for the first time in months or years), is to keep going! Force your body to get used to the stimulus so that micro tears and inflammation become a minor and rare occurrence.
Bottom Line: Try to push through DOMS and continue to workout to prevent future serious DOMS.
III. Is it DOMS or Injury?
This is a common question people ask themselves when experiencing severe DOMS.
The main way to distinguish between DOMS and a muscular tear or injury is (unfortunately) to try to workout and to monitor your pain over time. If the pain and soreness lessens as you warm up for your workout, it's likely just DOMS. If it's constant and it's more painful than sore, then it may be an injury and you should see a doctor. DOMS also ALWAYS improves with time, so if you're not experiencing any improvement in the days following the soreness onset or if you're feeling worse, it may also be time to see a doctor.
Bottom Line: If you're in severe pain that lasts more than a few days or if your soreness does not (even slightly) improve during your warm up, you may have an injury and should see a doctor.
Wow I didn't expect that post to be so long!! DOMS is a super important subject in the training and fitness domain so I really wanted to make sure I did it justice and was as thorough as possible. You can always comment any follow up questions here, but the quickest way to get a reply from me is via Instagram DM.
Keep up the good work fit fam! How bad do you want these goals?!!?