DOMS- (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) What Does it Really Indicate??
By Bob Kupnieski
The Common phrase that you should never train a muscle when it is sore is a commonly thrown around conception relating to trainees when they get DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). Others will claim that you should be sore after lifting weights which reflects you had a good workout and will lead to better progress or results. Does this concept apply to be true? Does Stimulation that leads to soreness result in muscle growth? Does DOMS mean that during a dieting phase that this will help retain muscle mass? Are these claims true? What is the truth about soreness and DOMS and what does it have to claim as far as the fitness industry goes? Hopefully this article and my stance regarding DOMS/Soreness will help educate you on this issue. The one thing I’ve seen a lot of trainees ask is, “If my muscles or sore should I train them again”? If you have read any of my previous training articles and how I like to set up training (Upper/Lower or a higher frequency split which is more important for muscle stimulation) you can already conclude my thoughts on this statement.
Soreness or DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) is a state relating to the muscles after a workout. Usually individuals will indicate their muscles feeling sore or worn out from heavy or hypertrophy workouts for up to 24-72 Hours (1-3 days), and in some rare cases even longer than that. The reason is because of the muscle swelling due to muscle stimulation from the workout or multiple workout sessions (depending on how the individual sets up their training or workout split). Another indication may be stiffness of the muscle (like soreness) from increased frequency or just one single workout which can limit mobility in the muscle or joint’s around the muscle that are affected from DOMS. To break this down easier, when you train a muscle and cause stimulation, there can be a side effect of soreness or stiffness which can occur for a prolonged time period due to inflammation of the muscle. The pain and tenderness will be dependent on the individual and their training experience (novice or intermediate trainees may become sore more often than experienced trainees). Advanced trainees may experience more DOMS than novice or intermediate trainees due to different intensity techniques, slower eccentrics, slower concentrics, holds, or utilizing things like rest pause sets, half reps, or other different speculations of lifting reps, tempos, and sets to shock their muscles. Compare this to a novice or intermediate trainee who may utilize more straight sets, straight reps (say 8 reps for all exercises), and that follow something along the lines of Starting Strength, Madcow, or a basic 5/3/1 program that does not deviate much from performing sets, resting, and then getting back to the set.
Some of the things to consider regarding soreness and DOMS will be nutrition. The one key factor individuals will notice is that during a dieting phase DOMS becomes more present than into a bulking or gaining phase. When there are an abundant amount of calories there is more room for muscle growth, muscle restoration, and less DOMS. When one is in a deficit this is when DOMS will settle harder. You are pushing your body to a limit of losing weight, losing fat, and this will also impair recovery. When recovery is impaired and a muscle is inflamed the amount of time it has to recover may take longer due to a deficit of calories needed to help restore damaged muscle tissue. The same can be noted on an individual when dieting and their immune system. Those in a deficit are more prone to sickness, and if they do get sick it will take longer to recover if they continue to eat in a deficit. This seems to be a major problem to those towards to end of contest prep for some event, or for a photo shoot. When one usually gets sick it may take them a few days longer to recover or sometimes up to a week depending on the strength of their immune system, and how long they have been dieting. Some individuals who may diet over 20+ weeks may be crushed, while those who have only been dieting for 6-8 weeks may be able to recover quicker due to eating more calories and doing less cardio which could have an impact on.
Another part of indication on muscle soreness like I touched upon was muscle stimulation and in different ways when I compared a novice to an advanced trainee. Most people when starting out do not pay close attention to their lifting tempo, and because of this you usually see them trying to lift the weight without much emphasis on the eccentric portion (the negative) and this is when the muscle is under the most tension and what could include the most soreness or DOMS on an individual. Due to this the muscle stress is low, but due to their experience (novice) they may experience a great amount of DOMS due to being new to training. If a novice trainee were to focus on slow negatives, forced reps, or paused reps they may not walk the next day after leg day. Those intensity techniques are new ways to inflame the muscle to a different degree, and place the muscle under extra stress which would require a longer duration of time to help recover or restore. A good example on how to really stimulate the muscle would be back training. As you know my stance I am huge on full range of motion and also holding the reps. For most that train back their form is off, they use a lot of momentum, and because of this it takes away from working the direct muscle being attacked and will allow other muscles to take over (mostly the biceps in this case) therefore muscle overlap is more present than the back which should be getting the major attention. Therefore an individual after training back may wake up and say “I do not feel like my back is sore, I must have had a bad workout” when in reality it is their form which is holding them back on getting the muscle activated to the proper degree. While lifting tempo is a key reasoning behind stimulating the muscle to an extended degree there is also occlusion training (blood flow restriction training) where you will wrap the muscle you are trying to target which will restrict blood and cause for a massive pump or swelling of the muscle. When you deprive a muscle of oxygen you will lead to an increased growth or self-induced pump and increase IGF-1 which could also aid muscle stimulation to a different degree. While the amount of weight you will do will be far less than a regular exercise due to the wraps and the overall RPE will be lower it will still be a variety like an intensity technique to increase DOMS or muscle soreness.
With what we know about DOMS and Muscle soreness, does that mean DOMS is a result of a better workout? As we have already pinpointed most likely not. The key difference will be between your nutrition (bulking vs cutting) and that cutting would allow for less recovery and maybe an increase in DOMS. Difference in intensity techniques also would be a key factor for DOMS and enhance muscle stimulation due to the muscle getting overload in different forms (especially longer negatives). For those that are new to training and you throw them on an advanced workout routine with higher volume or high intensity techniques would outdo their training capacity. The same could be said for those who jump on a spin bike and go through a spinning class; they would be totally wiped the next day. If you wanted an individual to run a marathon and they are not a runner they would have a hard time building up muscular endurance to perform the event. More examples would include individuals who take a break from training maybe due to a vacation or an injury and then come back to their workout routine would experience increased DOMS. Due to not handling an increased or continual workout routine you are going to really feel the muscle being stimulated to a greater degree because it has not been broken down frequently, or was not used to being broken down or stimulated to that degree in a long time therefore more muscle soreness will not always mean a better or greater workout. The last example I would include would be switching workout routines which may stress the muscle in a different way due to different rep or set schemes which could lead to increased DOMS. Due to different loading of the muscle through sets, reps, exercises which may trigger different branches of say your tricep, bicep, or any other body part you train this could cause soreness in different areas. Instead of doing nothing but pushdowns for triceps, if you start doing dips or overhead extensions you may feel your triceps engaged in a different way. The same can be said with working your back and doing lower lat work compared to higher lat or rhomboid work. When you vary how you row (bent over to a yates row) you may feel your back affected or sore in a different way which again does not mean a better or greater workout.
So with all of this said on DOMS and Muscle Soreness, I want to wrap up with asking, can we train a muscle that is still sore? For the most cases yes, especially those who are more advanced and may run a higher volume or higher frequency split. When people become more experienced and run DUP type programs or PHAT type programs (Daily Utilized Periodization and Power Hypertrophy Advanced Training) they will be training muscles sometimes up to 3-4x a week, or even a program like Smolov/Shieko with higher frequency and volume. Will training a muscle 3-4x a week be optimal? Not for every trainee, but for those advanced it does have its perks if you know how to set up your training, your reps, sets, and also maximum work load. So yes you can train a muscle even it is still sore, but make sure you understand soreness compared to pain. Training through pain may not be optimal and may cause more harm than good, but training through soreness is ok. Listen to your body that is the number one factor you need to put into consideration. Training through soreness is not an indication of a good workout; if you are using proper form and hitting the full range of motion your muscle will be sore. The breaking down of the muscle and stimulating it properly will cause soreness but that does not always mean a quality or optimal workout.