Muscle soreness: what causes it, and how to get rid of it
Everyone who gets into weight training will recognise the associated soreness in the days after. Usually it’ll be at its worst 2-3 days after your training, and can persist for over a week in particularly bad cases!
The technical name for this soreness is DOMS - Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. There are many claims regarding how to get rid of DOMS, and what actually causes it in the first place, so that’s what we’re going to look at today.
DOMS is essentially the product of metabolite accumulation in response to exercise. In other words, there are a bunch of chemicals that are released as part of the muscle contraction, damage and repair process that causes us to sense pain in that area.
Whenever we cause damage or put the musculature under stress, there is a huge amount of signalling between cells that goes on in the local area. As a result, inflammatory processes, immune system activation, pain signalling substances and chemicals involved in the remodelling process are all present and involved in causing DOMS.
One substance that is unlikely to be a direct cause of DOMS is lactic acid. The common perception is that the burning sensation caused by acid accumulation causes muscle soreness - but according to research this is not the case.
Usually muscle soreness is accompanied by workouts that cause a large amount of lactic acid production because those training sessions simply have a harder/higher workload. It doesn’t mean that the lactic acid is actually responsible for the pain sensation in the following days.
OK - I’m not sure anyone cares THAT much what metabolites are involved with DOMS - you’re probably more concerned with the pain management side of things!
Firstly I’m going to address what definitely doesn’t work - and this might come as a surprise.
Current research is pretty clear that static stretching does not reduce DOMS. The associated movement during a stretching session is probably what gives you relief, if anything. And particularly if you’re doing some light exercise/dynamic stretching combined with the static stretches, you’re likely to see some benefit - however, static stretching by itself is not an effective way to reduce muscle soreness!
Massage is another method, as is contrast baths (e.g. alternating between very cold and very hot water in the shower). The contrast bath method seems to work pretty well, but has had some mixed results and probably suffers just as much from anecdote as static stretching (ie people just take it for granted as common knowledge, and see sports stars doing it in the locker room so they assume it works).
My hot tip for reducing DOMS is to eat properly around your training. It’s been shown that having a dose of BCAAs around training will reduce DOMS in the days following.
Note that I’m not advocating supplementing with them, as I believe BCAAs to be one of the least cost-effective supplements on the market, but rather ensuring enough high quality protein before and after training.
Add to this some lighter training and generally moving around instead of sitting or lying down the rest of the day, and you’re well on your way to mitigating muscle soreness.
At the end of the day you still just have to cop it, though. Wear it as a badge of honour! You’ll find that soreness is bad the first couple of times you train or perform a new exercise, but it quickly subsides after that.
Lastly - do you need to get sore to know you're progressing in the gym?
My answer is: it depends! A body-builder or powerlifter looking to cause a serious degree of muscle damage to promote growth probably should get at least a little sore after most training sessions. But everyone has different goals and different needs, and your training should reflect that.
You need to be able to use other outcomes to determine if you're progressing or not - it's pretty straightforward to make yourself ridiculously sore, but this isn't an intelligent way to approach training unless it's a byproduct of proper periodisation and programming.
Cairns SP "Lactic acid and exercise performance : culprit or friend?" Sports Med. (2006)
Herbert RD, de Noronha M, Kamper SJ "Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise." Cochrane Database Syst Rev. (2011)
Shimomura Y, et al "Branched-chain amino acid supplementation before squat exercise and delayed-onset muscle soreness." Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. (2010)
Zainuddin Z, et al "Effects of massage on delayed-onset muscle soreness, swelling, and recovery of muscle function." J Athl Train. (2005)
Zainuddin Z, et al "Light concentric exercise has a temporarily analgesic effect on delayed-onset muscle soreness, but no effect on recovery from eccentric exercise." Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. (2006)