It’s the morning after a tough workout and, as you step out of bed — %#*&! Everything hurts … So. Freaking. Good.
For a lot of exercisers, it’s hard to feel like you really got in a good workout if you don’t feel sore. We get it, but can you have a great workout without being sore? What does the soreness really mean?
THE INS AND OUTS OF DOMS
The muscle soreness you feel 24–72 hours after a tough workout, called delayed onset muscle soreness (or DOMS), is a sign your muscles are changing at a cellular level. “In order for muscles to get larger, a process called hypertrophy, there needs to be muscular damage, mechanical tension and metabolic stress placed on the body, explains Rain Burkeen, a personal trainer with the Trainerize online training app. “It’s as a result of our bodies recovering from this muscular damage — adapting to prevent further injury when you perform the same movement again — that hypertrophy occurs.”
But while DOMS is often associated with muscle growth, that doesn’t mean DOMS always equals muscle growth, according to one research review published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal. Researchers note that DOMS is influenced not just by how hard you push your body, but also your hormonal state, individual nervous system, the exact muscles worked (some are more prone to soreness than others) and pain perceptions.
What’s more, there’s way more to get out of your workouts than hypertrophy alone. For instance, a steady-state cardio workout might not stimulate a lot of muscular damage and, thus, DOMS, but it will improve your cardiovascular health and burn fat. Meanwhile, lifting near your 1RM (the max amount of weight for one rep), will cause less DOMS compared to hypertrophy workouts (which generally involve performing sets of 6–12 reps), but they can lead to crazy strength gains.
WHEN TOO MUCH IS TOO MUCH
Perhaps even more important to remember is that, sometimes, DOMS can actually be counterproductive. After all, if you try to run five miles on already super-sore legs, it’s not going to be pretty. The run is going to be painful, and, since your exercise performance is guaranteed to be sub-par when you’re sore, you also stand to get fewer fitness gains from that run, Burkeen says.
Meanwhile, if you work out five or six days a week, and you experience DOMS after every single sweat session, you could be pushing yourself too hard. According to research published in Sports Health, extreme muscle soreness can be a sign of overreaching and overtraining syndrome — especially if coupled with other symptoms including reduced exercise performances, fatigue and depressed moods. While there’s no one rule for how often you should or shouldn’t feel DOMS, by listening to your body and watching out for those other signs, you can make sure that any DOMS works in your favor.
Remember, DOMS is a sign of muscle damage and, to see real results, you have to allow your body time to recover from that damage, Burkeen says. That’s where recovery workouts, which help to relieve rather than cause DOMS, such as low-intensity cardio and yoga, come in.
The Bottom Line: DOMS is one of many signs you had a good workout, especially if your goals include muscle growth. But it’s not the only one. So, if you experience DOMS from time to time, that’s great. If you don’t, don’t sweat it.