If you’ve ever tried high-intensity resistance training you will know what pain is. The following morning feels like you woke up in hell instead of in your bed and you can barely walk down the stairs let alone do normal things by yourself, such as cooking. The pain is real and I can’t even begin to describe the soreness your muscles experience after this type of training.
However, there is a myth concerning this feeling – that only people who aren’t training get it on their first try. This is false – even people who have trained a few times a week for years sometimes get this type of pain and soreness after a heavy workout. This symptom has a name and it’s DOMS, which stands for “Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness”.
DOMS is a type of inflammation of the connective tissue in your skeletal muscle mass, which is torn during training and needs to heal the next day. DOMS is manifested through a degree of swelling in the muscles, which them pressurizes your muscle fibers. This is painful and constant for a longer period of time, so your nerve receptors pick it up and you feel the pain. There are a few ways to get delayed onset muscle soreness, and while a lot of people insist that it’s the sign that your workout was amazing and your muscles will be growing, there is actually credible scientific research that points to the other direction.
One of the conclusions of the research suggests that DOMS could lower your strength and diminish your cellular growth in your muscle tissue. Also, movement patterns are highly afflicted in a negative way. If your muscles are sore, your performance will be lacking as well, which means that protein synthesis in your muscle cells after the workout will be low too. The second conclusion from the study says that if DOMS is rampant on your body, you will be more prone to hurting yourself and you won’t be able to follow your workout schedule as well because of all the pain.
The study also showed that delayed onset muscle soreness has a direct correlation with muscle damage caused by working out. However, the problem arises when people link muscle growth to after-work out soreness. DOMS and muscle gain have nothing in common because people can actually experience the effects of DOMS without any inflammatory pains. I know what you’re thinking – what does inflammation have to do with growth? Well, it’s simple. The body has two possible states when it comes to metabolism – anabolic and catabolic.
Anabolism is growth and it’s linked very tightly to muscle cell swelling. When you’re in the anabolic state, your protein synthesis levels are up, meaning you grow more muscle. There is another side of the story here, though. In 2013, Schoenfeld and Contreras explained that DOMS and cell swelling aren’t linked because muscle soreness tends to reach its zenith way before the muscle starts swelling. Also, we have a genetic component in regards to delayed onset muscle soreness. People tend to be more susceptible to DOMS in specific muscles, while other muscles don’t hurt at all, no matter how well exercised or developed they may be. This just proves that there is no link between DOMS and muscle gain. So, to cut it short – no, soreness doesn’t mean your muscles are growing.
Some people have a drastic effect of delayed onset muscle soreness after exercising. I would even go as far to call this muscle injury instead of DOMS. When you’re that sore, that means that your muscles haven’t fully recovered, and when DOMS is perpetuated over a longer period of time that means that the body has failed to recover at all. If you damage your muscles that much, you will also lower your ability to train with consistency, which means that your attitude towards training will be different as well.
Simply speaking, thinking that muscle soreness is in any way positively correlated with muscle growth will get you hurt and it will also lower your motivation and performance levels. Even though a lot of people think that feeling your sore muscles is the epitome of muscle growth after a good workout, research would disagree. Soreness is a very normal response to new challenges to your body, in whatever form may they come, but it shouldn’t be viewed as important to muscle growth. Finishing a workout that doesn’t result in delayed onset muscle soreness is completely okay. If you have DOMS every once in a while, it’s okay, but if you’re having it for a prolonged period of time, it can cause you major issues with your all-around health, so make sure to take good care of your body if you want to keep exercising and keep pushing forward – with DOMS, you won’t.
Byrnes WC and Clarkson PM. “Delayed onset muscle soreness and training.” Clin Sports Med 5: 605–614, 1986.
Schoenfeld, B. J., & Contreras, B. (2013). “Is Postexercise Muscle Soreness a Valid Indicator of Muscular Adaptations?” Strength & Conditioning Journal (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins), 35(5), 16-21.