Is It Supposed To Hurt?

Actually, I was surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) that so much literature and attention was being garnered by what I consider to be a normal consequence of working out: sore muscles.

doms leg press
Photo credit: skorarunning.com

Remember how I told you that my legs felt like spaghetti after I ramped up my leg day workout? That was a few weeks back, and simple things like standing up, sitting down, or walking up and down stairs remind me of just how sore leg day gets me the next day. Of course, my muscles are sore the day after any weight training exercise, but for some reason, my legs feel it the most.

Is there something wrong with me?

As it turns out, my muscle soreness, as I mentioned above, is a natural consequence of lifting and it even has a name: Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS. You can read all about it at Wikipedia although what prompted me to write today’s blog post was something I saw at the MyFitnessPal.com blog.

As it turns out, there is some misinformation floating around out there about DOMS. One myth is that it’s caused by a build-up of lactic acid in the blood. Both MyFitness.com and BreakingMuscle.com refute this:

The archaic theory for the mechanism of DOMS being a build-up of lactic acid and toxic metabolic waste products has largely been rejected. So first of all, let’s just take that one of the table, and move on.

While “the exact mechanisms are not well understood” the paper by Schoenfeld and Contreras explained, “DOMS appears to be a product of inflammation caused by microscopic tears in the connective tissue elements that sensitize nociceptors and thereby heighten the sensations of pain.” From there the article goes deep into the biochemistry describing noxious chemicals and different nerve afferents, the likes of which I’m sure you really needn’t concern yourself with if your goal is simply to find out how DOMS relates to your goal of getting fitter, stronger, healthier, and looking better naked.

To summarize, let’s just say DOMS appears to occur due to connective tissue microtrauma. It’s also worth mentioning that while most exercise can induce some DOMS, exercise with a greater emphasis on the eccentric phase (the lengthening or stretching phase) plays the most significant role in the manifestation of DOMS.

However, these two sources part company as to whether or not DOMS, or rather the muscle damage associated with this soreness, results in muscle growth (well, not really part company, but the explanation is complicated).

MyFitnessPal.com says:

Yes, DOMS appears to be caused by trauma to your muscle fibers, but it’s not a definitive measure of muscle damage. In fact, a certain degree of soreness seems to be necessary. “When muscles repair themselves, they get larger and stronger than before so that [muscle soreness] doesn’t happen again,” says Vazquez. While these mechanisms are not completely understood, Mike notes that some muscle trauma is needed to stimulate protein production and muscle growth.

While BreakingMuscle.com states:

Quick answer: No. Though it may enhance it, to an extent.

Longer answer: This really begs a different question of what does in fact cause hypertrophy, which leads us to another paper by Schoenfeld, The Mechanisms for Muscle Hypertrophy, and Their Application to Resistance Training.

doms after crossfit
Photo credit: Daily Fitness Inspiration

Actually, the explanation is a lot more involved than that. It turns out, as your body adapts to an exercise that initially resulted in DOMS, the next day soreness should start going away…until you change your workout upping the intensity or challenging your muscles in a different way (and I’m just kidding with the image on the right, it won’t hurt that bad).

According to MyFitness.com:

DOMS is most pronounced when you introduce a new training stimulus—a new activity, increased intensity or volume—or if you are new to physical activity in general. “Your body is making adaptations to better prepare your muscles to do that activity again,” says Lauren Haythe, certified Kinesis Myofascial Integration Practitioner and yoga teacher. That’s why on Day 1 at the gym, after doing squats or lunges with 10-15 pound weights, you can be brutally sore the next day. “But, as you continue on, you can build up from there, and you won’t be so sore,” she says.

Bodybuilding.com spoke to the issue of age and DOMS which is of particular interest to me:

Your athletic conditioning, age and the condition of your skeletal muscular system all contribute to DOMS onset. Your degree of athletic conditioning – i.e. how adapted is your body to training – will determine, in part, the inflammatory response to exercise.

Young athletes are susceptible to DOMS because their conditioning is not yet fully developed to handle heavy and intense workouts, and older athletes are susceptible to DOMS because of their age, shifting hormonal status and decreased recovery responses.

They also said:

In the case of the young athlete, DOMS sets in because they lack muscular conditioning and because the pro-inflammatory response system that’s triggered by exercise is over-active and not adjusted to their training volume.

By contrast, advanced athletes are likely to experience DOMS, not because they lack muscular conditioning, but because their enzyme levels and their inflammatory response systems are slower and less efficient due to age. In both cases, both young and old athletes lack the anti-inflammatory enzymes needed to stifle prolonged inflammation and DOMS onset.

So young or old, DOMS is an equal opportunity pest in our lives. But before you reach for that bottle of ibuprofen:

Until recently, the only anti-DOMS recourse for athletes has been to use non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like ibuprofen. Unfortunately these over-the-counter pain killers stunt muscle growth and can damage the liver.

You can click on the link I provided above for Bodybuilding.com to read their recommendation for using Protease Enzymes and Sitosterols for the prevention and treatment of DOMS.

Shape.com had a list of some practical suggestions that you might be more familiar with:

  1. Warming up: Perform a light initial workout to increase your body temperature and prepare your muscles for the additional strain of lifting.
  2. Stay Hydrated: Hydration in general enhances your athletic performance but it’s also suggested that a lack of electrolytes can cause muscle soreness and this article recommends drinks containing no protein or stimulants such as Powerade Zero. Personally, I’ll stick with water.
  3. Ice: Icing sore muscles is a traditional method of reducing the pain and inflammation associated with DOMS.
  4. Doing Cardio: Cardio increases overall blood flow bringing nutrients like oxygen, protein and iron to muscles assisting in a quicker recovery.

Of course, after leg day, doing my usual cardio on an elliptical machine is quite a chore.

doms memeMyFitnessPal.com also suggests massage since that moves fluids around the body and helps heal muscular microtrauma. Also foam rolling, contrast showers (alternating between hot and cold water), Epsom salt bathes, and Omega-3 supplements are all supposed to help.

However, there’s a difference between the microdamage done to muscles that result in DOMS and actually injuring yourself. If the soreness or pain doesn’t significantly reduce or go away after 72 hours, please consider that you really may have hurt yourself and see a medical practitioner.

Of course, if it’s an injury, you’d probably have felt it during or immediately after your workout. I try to be careful, but there are those times when I can tell I’ve come close to hurting myself, usually by using bad form during a lift or just going too heavy.

Also, from the MyFitnessPal.com blog:

“It doesn’t mean that you’re not getting as good of a workout because you’re not crippled the next day,” says Monica Vazquez, NASM certified personal trainer. “You should feel [soreness] 24 hours to three days after the activity. If, after three days, you try to do the same exercise and you cannot because you go immediately to muscle failure, you’ve done too much,” she says.

While DOMS is unavoidable and a natural consequence of resistance training, injuries are always preventable. You are your own best advocate, protector, and health coach. Yes, your muscles will get sore for a day or so after a challenging workout, but really hurting yourself means downtime away from the gym, losing some muscle mass, and, as an older athlete, facing a longer recovery.

Be safe. Get strong.

Oh, one last thing. It’s been about four weeks since I started using MyFitnessPal.com to track my calories and so far I’ve lost five pounds. Paying attention to what and how much I eat really makes a difference.

The resistance that you fight physically in the gym and the resistance that you fight in life can only build a strong character.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

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