Soreness the day after training is often perceived as a sign of a good, productive training session. This can last up to 7 days (1) but usually lasts between 1 and 3 days. This soreness is labelled delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
What Causes DOMS?
It was once thought that the buildup of lactic acid caused DOMS, however this is not the case. Lactic acid is cleared relatively quickly following exercise, usually within 30 minutes. Instead, exercise one is unaccustomed to results in disruption of the sarcolemma, extracellular matrix, and intracellular muscle structure (5) resulting in DOMS. This means that DOMS usually occurs the most at the beginning of a training cycle, when training volume (sets x reps x weight) is higher, or when different exercises have been implemented. Simply, when you start out a training programme, your muscles will damage to a greater extent and this will result in more DOMS.
Adaptation to Exercise & Muscle Damage
Early neural adaptations are responsible for most of the strength gain at the beginning of a training cycle (8). Morphological (size) adaptations of the muscle tissue typically occurs a bit later. As DOMS is higher at the beginning of a training cycle, those in favour of DOMS as an indicator of muscle growth would expect muscle growth to be higher at the start of the training cycle when more DOMS is present. However this is simply not the case. The contribution of muscular hypertrophy to strength gain relative to neural adaptation increases further on in the training cycle (where muscle damage & DOMS is actually less present).
The study by Brentano & Martins (4) opposed the idea that muscle damage (and hence DOMS) was required for muscle growth. They stated that it may not be a useful indicator of long term muscle growth as low mechanical overloads over a long period of time can result in muscle growth, with little to no muscle damage occuring. Although not of resistance exercise nature, a study (7) was conducted on training programming on cyclists with regards to muscle damage and muscle gain. Training volume (main driver of muscle gain) was matched between groups. One group was exposed to a higher initial damaging bout of exercise, resulting in more muscle damage. The other group was eased into the training protocol, and reported lower exertion (ease of exercise) and less DOMS. Over the course of the study, both grouped gained equal muscular cross sectional area, despite one of the groups experiencing far more muscle damage and DOMS. Thus muscle gain still occurs without significant muscle damage, and so the associated DOMS should not be used as a sole indicator of a successful training session.
Anecdotally, DOMS occurs more-so when training a bodypart less frequently. One day per week per bodypart more often than not results in more DOMS than when you start training more frequently, like 2 to 3 days per bodypart per week. Additionally, training each muscle group 2x per week compared to 1x results in greater muscle size improvements (9). DOMS has been demonstrated to reduce joint range of motion (2) and strength (3), as well as increasing risk of injury (10) in the short term. In my opinion, these are the main reasons why protocols resulting in excessive DOMS should be avoided; they prevent you from training as frequently, which could prevent you from gaining as much muscle and strength.
So what should I focus on instead?
Training progress measured by lifting more weight, doing a few more reps with the same weight, increasing number of total sets, or improving technique to make it more suited to the particular goal, should be the goal of most training sessions or training cycles.
Training, especially if unaccustomed to it, damages the muscle and you perceive it as soreness (6).
DOMS will occasionally be a byproduct of training, but it should never be the goal of a training session or used as an indicator that you are improving in muscle size. Focus on adding weight to the bar, adding reps, doing more sets, or improving technique, rather than chasing DOMS. That will lead to better long term gains.
- Armstrong RB. Mechanisms of exercise-induced delayed onset muscular soreness: a brief review. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1984;16(6):529–538.
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- Brentano, M. A., & Martins, K. L. (2011). A review on strength exercise-induced muscle damage: applications, adaptation mechanisms and limitations. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness, 51(1), 1-10.
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- Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2016). Effects of resistance training frequency on measures of muscle hypertrophy: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 46(11), 1689-1697.
- Smith LL. Causes of delayed onset muscle soreness and the impact on athletic performance: a review. J Appl Sport Sci Res. 1992;6(3):135–141.