What is Muscle Soreness and is it Good?

Do you ever feel nauseous when working out or suffer from intense muscle pain a day or two after your workout? Don’t worry if you do because almost everyone who trains experiences both symptoms throughout their training program.

What is Muscle Soreness?

There are two main types of exercise-induced muscle soreness:

Acute Muscle Soreness
Acute muscle soreness (AMS) occurs during and immediately after you exercise. General symptoms include muscle aches, burning sensations, and nausea. These symptoms are your body’s way of telling you it is under stress and to stop doing whatever is causing this discomfort.

The primary cause of AMS is the buildup of acid, commonly mistaken as lactic acid, in your muscles as you exercise. When the energy demands of an exercise are larger than what your cardiovascular system can provide through oxygen, chemical reactions take place in your muscles to create energy, producing acid as a byproduct. As the concentration of acid increases in your muscle, it begins to malfunction and you’ll feel discomfort. When you stop the exercise the chemical reactions stop as well. Shortly after, the symptoms disappear as your body attempts to clear the buildup of acid.

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is pain and stiffness felt in your muscles after your workout. This pain can sometimes be very intense. DOMS peaks between 24 to 72 hours after your workout and is typically completely gone within 1 week. It is most common when starting a new workout routine or dramatically increasing the intensity of your current routine. The pain associated with DOMS is typically felt only when you use the sore muscles (e.g. stretch, contract, apply pressure, etc.). The muscles shouldn’t be in pain when they are at rest.

The remainder of the article focuses on DOMS as it is more painful and affects you longer than AMS.

Why Do You Get DOMS?

DOMS is caused by the micro-tearing of muscle fibres. As you resist the eccentric (negative) portion of a movement, small tears are made in the active muscles. As with most injuries, your body reacts with inflammation and other healing mechanisms, which is your body telling you, through pain, not to use the affected muscles. Micro-tearing is an essential concept in muscle development because your body responds by building additional muscle to heal the tears. The amount of soreness does not well reflect the amount of micro-tearing but merely how accustomed those muscles are to the training.

Is DOMS Good or Bad?

DOMS is neither good nor bad. It is simply an indication of an untrained muscle with respect to an external resistance (rep/set/weight scheme).

After you first train a muscle with a specific exercise and external resistance, your body reacts by adapting to that stress. Part of this adaptation includes a protective effect that reduces the amount of soreness you feel next time. This protective effect is built upon every time you complete the same exercise with the same external resistance, making the soreness less severe each time. When you stop performing this exercise, the protective effect starts to degrade after several weeks, making you vulnerable to DOMS when you perform that movement again.

Dramatically changing the external resistance of an exercise (e.g. lifting much more weight, a significant change in reps, etc.) results in a lesser, but similar soreness as doing an exercise for the first time. The protective effect is strongest for the specific resistance it was built against and has only a small carryover effect to new resistances.

Preventing DOMS

There are no known ways to prevent DOMS for an untrained muscle other than starting your training slowly and gradually increasing the intensity. This allows the protective barrier to be incrementally built up before reaching a challenging resistance.

However, DOMS is very common and does not typically cause a major inconvenience to your daily life, making ramping up often unnecessary.

How to Treat Severe DOMS

Sometimes DOMS can cause a lot of discomfort and pain, especially for people who are genetically inclined to experience more soreness. Proper nutrition and sleep are key to supply your body with the nutrients and recovery time to heal as fast as possible. For more immediate relief, you can increase blood flow to bring additional nutrients to the muscles in need. To achieve this, try:

  • foam rolling for 10 minutes after a workout;
  • low-intensity activity, such as walking or jogging;
  • massaging the affected muscles;
  • taking a warm bath or spending time in a steam room or sauna; or
  • applying a heat pack to the affected muscles.

The next time you experience DOMS you can take comfort in knowing that everyone, from professional athletes to beginners, experiences similar soreness. If the soreness is very uncomfortable, try some of the relief treatments above to help reduce the pain.

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