Do you remember your first day at the gym? Okay, do you remember how you felt the FOLLOWING day? Yes, I am talking about the severe pain you experienced that made doing the easiest tasks impossible. I wouldn’t be surprised if you couldn’t even lift your arm to brush your teeth! The common notion among bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts in general is that soreness means a good workout and thus means muscle growth. But, how true is this? Is soreness synonymous with a good workout? Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) or simply soreness is a physiological pain felt a day or several days after a training session. A “pumped-up” feeling in the trained muscle(s) usually accompanies soreness. As a result, a similar thought usually crosses your mind “I am going to gain a whole lot of muscle.”. Moreover, you usually end up excessively feeling your trained muscles in public -we’ve all been there- because who doesn’t like looking pumped 24/7? With that being said, is soreness really an indicator of muscle growth? Can we equate being more sore with more results? Science doesn’t think so.
- Being sore doesn’t mean you had a great workout. When referring to muscle growth and progress at least.
- Soreness isn’t an accurate gauge of the degree of muscle damage. Thus, being more sore doesn’t equal more muscle damage.
- Soreness is primarily caused by eccentric actions.
- Yes, you can train through soreness. In fact, it’s better for you!
- DOMS = Delayed onset muscle soreness = soreness.
- You don’t have to be sore to have had a great workout.
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)
Delayed onset muscle soreness, or soreness is a physical pain classified as a type I muscle strain that occurs following a training session, usually of a vigorous nature. Thus, soreness is more commonly associated with strength training or a long intense cardio session. Before we can answer whether soreness is indicative of muscle growth or not, let’s explore what causes it.
Cause of soreness (DOMS)
According to most studies, the eccentric portion of an exercise is believed to be the main initiator of DOMS. Eccentric actions are actions that cause the muscle to lengthen. Moreover, individuals still experience extreme soreness when an eccentric action is executed without its concentric counterpart. Many studies were conducted in an attempt to investigate the relationship between muscle soreness and eccentric, concentric and static actions. Those studies observed that individuals who solely trained with eccentric actions experienced extreme muscle soreness. The same studies also observed that subjects who trained with only concentric and static actions experienced little to soreness regardless of intensity level. Researchers agree that eccentric actions lead to more muscle soreness for two reasons: 1) eccentric actions cause microtrauma (micro tears) to muscle fibers. 2) more force is generated during eccentric actions compared to concentric and static actions which results in more damage to muscle fibers.
Ironically, researchers do not fully understand how DOMS occur, however, they’ve come up with a few theories that might accurately explain the mechanism behind DOMS’ occurrence.
It’s NOT lactic acid
One of the earliest theories that tried to explain the mechanism behind DOMS was the lactic acid theory. This theory speculated that DOMS occur due to the buildup of lactic acid within muscles. However, this is false. Additionally, this seems to be a popular myth among fitness enthusiasts. The “lactic acid theory” has been rejected by researchers since concentric actions also produce lactic acid yet fail to cause DOMS. Another reason why this theory has been rejected is because lactic acid was shown to return to normal levels shortly after an exercise session (approximately 1 hour), therefore, it cannot explain the delayed pain that’s usually felt 48-72 hours later.
Damage at the cellular level
In 1902, Theodore Hough theorized that DOMS are essentially caused by muscle tissue damage. More specifically, micro tears in muscle fibers. Exercise, specially strength training, results in muscle “damage” and structural damage. Some recent studies have support the idea that structural damage might be responsible for localized muscle pain and stiffness. In those studies, researchers noted that some of the subjects experienced severe muscle damage that resulted in complete rupture of cell membranes allowing the cell’s contents to be released freely.
A strenuous weight lifting session will result in inflammation. In fact, doing an exercise that you have never done before will lead to even more inflammation. Inflammation is one of the body’s main defense mechanisms. Being the adaptive machine it is, the body attempts to recover and repair damaged muscle tissue as fast as possible. Inflammation at this level is hypothesized to be a by-product of what researchers refer to as “the enzyme efflux theory”. In essence, the enzyme efflux theory speculates that calcium that’s normally stored in the sarcoplasmic reticulum escapes into the damaged muscles. In turn, this results in sub-optimal cellular respiration. Ultimately, inflammation occurs due to the accumulation of macrophages and elevation of neutrophils which in turn result in increased muscle temperature and fluid retention which explains why extreme soreness is often accompanied by fuller muscles. Additionally, the latter-mentioned biological processes result in the secretion of certain substances that cause higher sensitivity to movement and make certain nerve endings more sensitive. Thus, researchers hypothesize that DOMS could be caused by cellular inflammation.
The “sore” = “good” bullshit
It’s 2017 and some popular fitness figures still emphasize the idea of being extremely sore. Moreover, they seem to equate being more sore with more results. There is just one tiny issue with that theory: it’s complete and utter bullshit! As you saw in the mechanism of DOMS explained above, soreness is indicative of some muscle damage, however, it’s not an accurate measurement of how much damage you’ve caused. In other words, you cannot gauge muscle damage following a workout session by how sore you feel the days after your exercise session. Remember that eccentric actions are mainly responsible for causing extreme muscle soreness because they generate the most force, however, more force doesn’t necessarily result in more muscle damage. Your workout session might’ve caused severe muscle damage without making you feel a tiny bit of soreness! So, if you are not sore following a workout session, does that mean you’re not growing or that you’re not progressing? Absolutely not! Progressive overload and mechanical tension are still the most important factors of muscle hypertrophy (growth).
Soreness is not a medical condition or anything to worry about. In fact, even severe soreness will usually disappear within approximately 72 hours. Most people like feeling sore after a workout session because it makes them feel as if they had a great workout. Thus, most people don’t mind not being able to lift their arms to brush their teeth. In rare cases, some individuals will wish they hadn’t set foot inside the gym because of the extreme soreness they are experiencing. They will want to do everything to relieve soreness ASAP! If you are one of those individuals, you could do one of the following to relieve your soreness almost immediately:
- Low-intensity cardio. Example: slow-paced walk
- Sauna sessions
- Hot baths
- Hot and cold shower therapy
- Massage (especially deep tissue massage)
- Potent anti-inflammatory agents such as NSAIDS (pain killers), cissus and curcumin (turmeric). However, consuming too much anti-inflammatory ingredients/drugs may hinder muscle growth since inflammation is still an essential part of muscle adaptation and hypertrophy. Furthermore, NSAIDS inhibit satellite cells’ activity which could result in less progress in the long term.
Any measure that improves blood circulation and localized blood flow to the sore muscle will alleviate soreness.
Should I train when I am sore?
Now that we covered what soreness is (DOMS), what causes it and the mechanism involved, should you train through soreness? Many people are still under the impression that if you are sore you shouldn’t train because you haven’t fully recovered yet. Well, according to studies, the degree of soreness in a muscle is not indicative of how recovered (or damaged, that is) a muscle is. In fact, almost all studies conducted on the relationship between soreness and training while sore concluded that training the sore muscle will help alleviate soreness. This is because training a muscle will increase the blood flow to that muscle and thus accelerate recovery and make it more efficient at adapting and processing cellular reactions.
Being more sore doesn’t necessarily mean muscle growth. Though not fully understood yet, researchers hypothesize that soreness is a by-product of structural damage to cell membranes, muscle damage and inflammation. Experiencing severe soreness is not indicative of severe muscle damage or more muscle growth. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, training through soreness will help alleviate soreness rather than make it worse.
Aaron Bubbico, B. a. (n.d.). Eccentric Exercie: A Comprehensive Review of a Distinctive Training Method. Retrieved from Universuty if New Mexico: https://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/eccentricUNM.html
BJ, S. (2012, May 26). Does exercise-induced muscle damage play a role in skeletal muscle hypertrophy? Retrieved from PubMed: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22344059
BJ, S. (2012, Dec 1). The use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for exercise-induced muscle damage: implications for skeletal muscle development. Retrieved from PubMed: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23013520
Brad J. Schoenfeld, B. C. (2013, October). Is Postexercise Muscle Soreness a Valid Indicator of Muscular Adaptations? Retrieved from Bret Contreras: https://bretcontreras.com/wp-content/uploads/Is-Postexercise-Muscle-Soreness-a-Valid-Indicator-of-Muscular-Adaptations.pdf
Vila-Chã, H. H. (2011, Nov 18). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3262141/. Retrieved from Eccentric exercise and delayed onset muscle soreness of the quadriceps induce adjustments in agonist–antagonist activity, which are dependent on the motor task: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3262141/
Cheung K, H. P. (2003). Delayed onset muscle soreness : treatment strategies and performance factors. Retrieved from PubMed: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12617692
Kazunori Nosaka, M. N. (2002, Dec 2). Delayed-onset muscle soreness does not reflect the magnitude of eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage. Retrieved from Scandanavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1034/j.1600-0838.2002.10178.x/full
RB, A. (1984, Dec 16). Mechanisms of exercise-induced delayed onset muscular soreness: a brief review. Retrieved from PubMed: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6392811