There are a lot of misconceptions about DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), some people train hard and if they don’t get sore they think they didn’t work hard enough/didn’t have an effective workout... and there are some people get sore even though their workout may have not exactly been great (e.g. a beginner).
So what is the deal with DOMS, is it good, bad or is there some nuance required?
Well in this article, I explore a few of the ins and outs to hopefully give you some actionable knowledge that you can use going forward.
But First, What is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)?
DOMS is the feeling of soreness that comes following training, usually 24-36 hours afterwards that can last a few days depending on severity.
It’s thought that cellular damage/inflammation caused from training is what causes DOMS within the muscles.
Many years ago it was thought that lactic acid contributed to DOMS however this has now been dismissed, considering lactic acid buildup is cleared by the body well before DOMS sets in and muscle biopsies in studies suggest it’s damage that causes DOMS this seems reasonable.
First of all, let’s be honest DOMS does feel good after a session right? It feels as though the soreness, is something to be proud of almost!
Although, if we randomly got soreness chances are we’d be concerned...so it’s not the soreness we like on it’s own, it's soreness following a training session.
It seems to be a good indicator that we have pushed ourselves, especially for the more experienced individual.
Unfortunately for those who love getting sore and think it equals growth…here are some counter points.
DOMS can be extreme in beginners..even if they have (and chances are they they will) a terrible workout session...after all they’re not used to training, so it’s hard to believe they’d be good at it first time around.
Meanwhile, many experienced lifters smash personal records but yet DON’T experience DOMS...so, does that mean they didn’t have a good session?
This demonstrates that chasing the DOMS feeling could indeed be causing more hassle than it’s worth. Have you ever had an absolutely AWESOME workout, felt great all the way through it, hit some new PRs but then didn’t get sore a few days later? I know I have had this experience and the first time it happened I was kind of confused...I thought I had a good workout! But...as I’m not sore, I guess not. This meant I was directly correlating DOMS with how good my workout was, which was detracting from my mindset and making me use false goal posts for successful training.
If I have a kick ass workout, hit some personal records and feel great...then that’s a big thumbs up! I now recognise this as a great workout and then move on, I don’t later on think it was ‘bad’ or not very good just because I don’t get sore...my attachment to it has now gone.
Plus, then there’s the large degree of individual variability (some people get worse DOMS than others), some people just get more sore than others meaning if they were to do the same workout (and output) as somebody else, all other things being equal they would get more sore - yet they won’t get better results.
Some Things to Think About
So hopefully, you may now see that DOMS doesn’t necessarily mean growth.
Have you ever run a marathon? Marathon runners are known to get absolutely terrible soreness following a race...lasting for WEEKS!
But would you run a marathon for leg development or do squats?
Oh...and then what about people who change from training a body part from once a week to multiple times a week? They experience less soreness and generally more growth (due to the increased volume and muscle stimulation)...detaching DOMS from growth yet again.
If your goal is growth/progress in the gym focus on the numbers...not the DOMS.
I did for a LONG time and even though I still made progress, if I had more clarity that DOMS didn’t equal a good workout...it would’ve saved me a lot of mental concern and aided my clarity too, as if you think a workout is great but don’t get sore this can cause self doubt and concern and that’s not helping anybody’s mindset!
In closing...if you get sore that’s cool and it can feel good for sure, like a badge of honour almost...but don’t worry if you don’t get sore either, focus on improving your numbers in the gym and training hard, that’s where your results are going to come from, not being sore.