Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Training Terminology: DOMS

More basic training terminology today.

DOMS stands for delayed onset muscle soreness. This is the soreness and pain you feel about 12-72 hours after working out (usually centered on 24-48 hours). If you've worked out hard, especially after a layoff, or tried something new, chances are you've experienced DOMS.

What causes it? The physiological cause of DOMS isn't really clear. In the past, it was believed to be caused by the buildup of lactic acid (seen as a waste product of anaerobic exercise). More recent studies have suggested that lactic acid isn't a waste product, and its buildup isn't tied to muscle soreness. Another theory is that DOMS is primarily causes by micro-tears in the muscle. In other words, your workout causes some damage at the cellular level to your muscles, which is then repaired and strengthened by your body...but you experience pain (DOMS) in the meantime.

That's the physiological angle.

Practically, some aspects of training seem to result in DOMS, or are at least go hand-in-hand with soreness.

- changing exercises. If you do a new variation of an exercise (neutral grip pullups instead of your usual supinated aka chinup grip) or do a new exercise (dips instead of bench press) you are more likely to experience DOMS because you're not adapted yet to the new exercise.
This is partly why people who try a new sport say things like "I ache in muscles I didn't even know I had!" They might not be out of shape, but just experiencing DOMS from a new exercise. If you only ever lift weights and ride your bike and then go do a 5K run, you might get DOMS because running is a new adaptation to you!

- eccentric exercises. Comparatively, exercises with a hard concentric movement give you less DOMS than ones with a hard eccentric movement. If your exercise has a strong eccentric component - lowering the bar to the floor on a deadlift, for example, or slowly lowering yourself from a pullup bar - you are likely to experience more DOMS. If your exercise has almost no eccentric component - box jumps or long jumps, dragging or pushing a sled, deadlifts where you drop the bar - you are likely to experience less DOMS.

- certain muscles. Some muscles, such as the chest, calves, and hamstrings, seem more susceptible to DOMS.

Combinations can be really painful. If you're trying Romanian Deadlifts for the first time - a new exercise (to you), focusing on the hamstrings, with a very strong eccentric component - you can expect a lot of DOMS. If you're doing sled drags for the umpteenth time, not so much.

What can I do about it? Really, not much beyond taking pain relievers works reliably. But there are a few things you can try that seem to have some effect in mitigating soreness.

- contrast showers. These are alternating very hot and very cold showers on and off. You can do it with baths, too. This seems to reduce inflammation and result in less DOMS.

- stretching. Some studies indicate that stretching before or after (or both!) a workout can result in reduced DOMS. More recent studies cast some doubts on this, but you should be warming up properly and stretching at some point, so you might give it a try.

How come I don't get sore? Soreness does vary from person to person. Some people can change their exercises frequently, work muscles associated with extreme soreness (calves, chest), and workout hard after a layoff and experience relatively mild DOMS. Others may get moderate DOMS from even the smallest changes in exercises or weight.

If I'm sore, it means I've worked hard, right? Well, yes and no. It's hard to get DOMS without working hard, but you can work hard without getting DOMS. Don't worry too much about getting or not getting DOMS. If you're always sore, try some of the suggestions for alleviating it. If you're never sore, you might consider if you're working out as hard as you believe. But it's not a primary indicator of hard work or results. If you're rarely sore but your weights keep increasing, you're doing just fine!

I'm sore, should I wait until I'm not sore to workout? Not necessarily. If you've got severe DOMS - you can't walk right, or raise your arms above your shoulders, or something similar, you might want to avoid exercising those areas. If you're only experiencing mild soreness, you can just go ahead and lift. It probably will dissipate the soreness or at least mask it. The short version is, if the soreness makes it difficult or impossible to lift safely, don't. If it doesn't, you can usually go ahead. This is especially true if you're just getting started - it's too easy to fall off a new workout schedule if you're waiting 12-72 hours after each workout before you lift again!

For more information on DOMS, check here.

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