Muscle Soreness : What Does It Mean And How Can You Avoid It?

Anybody who has exercised or been active has probably experienced some form of soreness the day or few days after physical activity or exercise but where does that soreness come from and is it a good was to gauge the effectiveness of a workout? Is it possible to avoid this soreness altogether?


The scientific term for this type of soreness is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS. DOMS is the sensation of discomfort or pain the skeletal muscles that occurs following unaccustomed muscular exertion. As a general rule, soreness becomes evident 6-8 hours following an intense exercise bout and peaks at approximately 48 hours post-exercise. The precise time course and extent of DOMS is highly variable and can sometimes last for many days depending on factors such as intensity, training status, and genetics. Many exercisers use their level of soreness as a gauge of how productive their workout was. If they aren't sore then they must not have had a very productive workout and if they are sore then that must have been a great workout routine. Unfortunately, this is a flawed way of thinking because there are a variety of causes of DOMS that don't all related to the productiveness of a workout.


Most individuals with at least a passing interest in exercise have experienced DOMS and can maybe offer a brief explanation of this phenomenon it may seem that the mechanisms that cause DOMS would have been thoroughly researched with few remaining questions. On the contrary, surprisingly little is known about the basic cellular and biomechanical mechanisms involved. Undoubtedly the most popular concept in the exercise community is that delayed soreness us a result of lactic acid accumulation in the muscles. This idea was proposed as early as the 1950s. Since this proposed theory there has been considerable data that argue against this metabolic hypothesis. The most convincing evidence is that the muscle contractions that produce the greatest degree of soreness, eccentric contractions (lowering the weight rather than lifting or pushing), require relatively low energy expenditure and therefore produce less lactic acid. This can be directly tested when studying downhill running. When research subjects run on a treadmill that is declined to simulate running downhill and then run on a level treadmill at the same speed and for the same duration on two different occasions the downhill running produces more soreness but less lactic acid. Obviously you can conclude that the amount of lactic acid that is present does not correlate with the amount of soreness experienced.

While the exact cause of DOMS needs to be further researched it is widely accepted that DOMS is prevalent when there is novelty of exercise or activity. Meaning if the exercises themselves, the weight used during an exercise, or the pace at which the exercise is performed is new to you it's far more likely that muscle soreness will occur. For example, if you had a desk job your whole life and then one day you decided to work construction for 8 hours you would be very sore because the movements would all be brand new to you. While you might receive some physical benefit you wouldn't suggest that you had a productive workout from working the construction job for one day.

It is also clear that DOMS results from "over-use" of the muscle. In other words, any activity in which the muscles produces higher forces than usual, or produces forces over a longer time period than usual, is capable of producing DOMS. Although the degree of soreness can be related to both the intensity of the muscular contraction and the duration of exercise, the intensity seems to be the more important determinant of the two.

Caution must be used in drawing conclusions about where your muscle soreness is coming from and whether or not you had a productive workout given the poor correlation between muscle soreness and the extent of exercise induced muscle breakdown. Some muscles appear to be more prone to DOMS than others, and there seems to be a genetic component that causes certain individuals to experience persistent soreness while others rarely get sore at all.

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Knowing the primary cause of muscle soreness is novelty of exercise it can be concluded that one of the most effective ways to mitigate the effects of DOMS is to keep your workout routine consistent. Doing the same exercises with the same pace and intensity can help mitigate the effects however in order to continue to see results you will have to continue to challenge your muscles which will always leave the possibility that you will experience some soreness.


The other main cause of muscle soreness being exercise induced muscle breakdown and the subsequent acute inflammation that comes with that suggests that serval interventions may help relieve some of the effects of DOMS. Things such as anti-inflammatory medication, massaging or foam rolling, a combination of heat and ice, as well as steam rooms and saunas can be effective for combating DOMS. Stretching before or after your workout will have no effect on the presence of muscle soreness as stretching typically breaks down muscle tissue further so it may actually enhance the feeling of soreness rather than relieve it.


Most people who engage in physical activity and exercise will experience delayed onset muscle soreness. While more research needs to be done to determine the exact mechanisms that cause DOMS it is known that the primary factors in determining if you will experience soreness are your genetics, novelty of exercise, and intensity of exercise. It can be hazardous to seek this muscle soreness after a workout because it doesn't indicate the productiveness of a workout and continuing to seek this feeling can leave you open to being over trained which will only hinder your results. If you are experiencing muscle soreness doing things to reduce inflammation like massaging, foam rolling, taking anti-inflammatory medication, and heating and icing are your best bets at reducing the feeling of soreness so that you are ready for your next workout.

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