Q: I’m frequently very sore from my workouts,—it’s sometimes so bad I can’t walk down stairs unassisted! Is this normal? Is there anything I can do to prevent it?
A: This is a common problem that occurs after weight training. We’ve even seen people walking backwards down stairs due to the pain from their hard leg workout. So rest assured… you’re not alone!
There are two types of exercise-related soreness. The first is immediate or acute soreness, and the second, more common type, is “Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness” or DOMS. Let’s take a look at these two, what causes this soreness, how to tell if the pain is good or bad, and perhaps most importantly, how to ease the post-workout “ouch.”
This type of soreness occurs during exercise or immediately after. It’s caused by a buildup of chemical waste in your muscles (technically known as “endotoxins,” which are measured by the rise in lactic acid within the blood). These toxins usually dissipate within a couple of minutes as you rest between sets when strength training, or if you are doing some form of cardio exercise, when you slow your pace.
During exercise, when these toxins reach a peak within the muscle, athletes refer to this sensation as “the burn,” and it’s normally a good indication our muscles are about to reach failure. Most athletes consider this a “good” pain as it signifies the high level of intensity you’re putting into your workout.
Fortunately, this pain goes away almost immediately.
However, if you feel this type of pain after your workout, then it may be caused by fluid moving from the blood plasma into the tissues, which can occur an hour or two after stopping intense exercise. As with acute/immediate soreness, which occurs during exercise, this pain should ease on its own within the same day. Normally within an hour or two after your workout.
This may sound familiar: you work out intensely and leave the gym feeling great. You feel great the whole day. And then bam, the following day, you feel like you’ve been put on the rack in a torture chamber.
Welcome to DOMS or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.
Typically, DOMS occurs the day after you work out, but oftentimes you actually feel even sorer on day two. Think of the last time you trained your leg muscles… either with heavy weights or with super high intensity. Remember how you endured a full day or two of walking funny and screaming “ouch” every time you lifted one of your legs to take a step or, worse, trudge up a set of stairs? And sitting down, forget about it!
DOMS can be especially difficult if you’ve laid off for some time from training, and then, when returning to the gym, hit it hard. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about here.
Fortunately, this type of pain should subside after a couple of days, and once you’ve adapted to the new exercise, higher level of intensity, workload, or new workout program, the pain should lessen considerably.
Since DOMS is the one most people endure, this is the type of pain We’re going to be focusing on in this article.
DOMS is particularly seen in “newbies” who are just starting a workout program. So if this is you, please don’t let the temporary (and typical) soreness of DOMS put you off—it will get better! As any seasoned trainer can tell you, though, DOMS can also be experienced when introducing a new exercise or hitting a new, higher level on the weights you use.
Why Does Pain Happen?
When you train with weights, you’re actually breaking down the muscle fibers, and as current theories hold, this may be what causes general, localized soreness. Basically, what is happening when you train intensely with weights is, on a microscopic level, you’re tearing the muscle fibers. The muscle tears are essential, though, as you actually build new muscle when these fibers are repaired and, as a result, increase in strength and size. The “tearing of these fibers actually produces swelling and that swelling in turn puts pressure on the local nerves which causes pain.
Lactic acid was previously blamed for DOMS, however, recent research indicates this isn’t so: lactate concentrations return to normal levels within 60 minutes, whereas DOMS occurs after 24 to 72 hours. As mentioned, the theory is that DOMS may be caused in part from inflammation around the muscle fibers or even from damaged connective tissue. Research is still ongoing to give a conclusive reason for it. (In other words, the scientists aren’t 100% sure what causes it!)
Research so far does suggest that certain types of exercise are associated with persistent soreness.
For example, a study published in the Journal Ergonomics compared two types of strength training: concentric (as in ordinary flexion) and eccentric (as in lowering a weight). Subjects in the eccentric group complained of muscle soreness, while the concentric group did not. In other words, it appears from this study that micro tears (and thus the possibility of DOMS) are more common with the “negative” (or eccentric) portion of the exercise, versus the “positive” (or concentric) part. Therefore, if you want to increase your muscle size and strength, you need to concentrate more heavily on the eccentric/negative part of lifting weights. I’d say this goes hand and hand with the old theory that says “slow and controlled” movements stimulate the most muscle fibers.
Is There Any Way To Prevent DOMS?
Luckily, there are certain measures you can take to ease DOMS or even prevent it altogether. First, try warming up thoroughly before you start your workout. This could be as simple as five to 10 minutes of easy cardio (in other words, until you start to break a light sweat) or by performing a few “warm-up” sets, using lighter weights than you would normally use for the muscle group you’re about to train. Both these methods help you completely warm up your body, ensuring your connective tissues (that hold the muscle to the bone) and muscles are “warm”—meaning they are filled with fresh, flowing blood, and nutrients are being delivered to the local area, and you’re not just hitting the weights or going full-belt into cardio without “waking up” your body and preparing it for intense training. By the way, this is particularly true if you work out first thing in the morning and your muscles are stiff from lying in bed for eight hours.
What you do after your workout is important too. That is, you should “cool down” completely before leaving the gym. We recommend you again do five to 10 minutes of cardio and then some light stretching—concentrating on the muscle group you’ve just trained. You could even try stretching the working muscle(s) between sets as well. This works particularly well for people who just want to get out of the gym after their workout or are on a time constraint.
Stretching helps lengthen the muscle and increases blood flow, which helps flush out the toxins that have built up during your workout. Be sure to stretch only after working out, though, and not before—as you might have heard. You don’t want to stretch muscles that aren’t “warmed up” as this can potentially lead to injury.
You’re Already Sore… Now What?
Sometimes you just get sore, despite doing everything you possibly can to prevent it, so how can you ease the pain?
Don’t call me crazy but the answer is…more exercise. We’re not suggesting you go and repeat the workout you just did or run three miles at a hard pace after running five miles the day before. We’re talking easy, light exercise, which will increase blood flow to the area to diminish the soreness. Examples would be a light workout, like riding a bike; a nighttime walk at a moderate pace; or even performing another weight-training session but focusing on core body parts, such the abdominals (rather than limbs).
Other ways to ease the pain include more stretching, especially on the affected area. Yoga is great for stretching and a fabulous way to keep toxins from building up. Another way to flush out toxins from your body is to have a full body massage. Preferably, the type best known as a “deep-tissue” massage.
Massage has been shown to help if done soon after you’ve finished working out. (Okay, this isn’t a proven fact, but do you really need an excuse for a massage?!) It will not only relieve some of the soreness, but it will keep your body free from potentially damaging toxins that build up over time. It’s a good idea to get a massage at least once a month. But if private massage is not something you feel comfortable with or can fit in your budget, you can always administer some self-massage to the affected area.
Icing can be very effective too and, if the pain is really persistent, try taking some ibuprofen or Aspirin. Take note that Aspirin increases Vitamin C excretion, so leave a few hours between taking your multivitamin and the painkiller.
You’ll probably find that if you have a desk job, your muscles feel worse after a prolonged period of sitting down, so get up every few hours and take a little walk and then stretch out.
DOMS usually only occurs when your body is adapting to exercise—if you’re new to the gym or if you’ve introduced a new exercise into your program or increased your intensity level. Thus, you shouldn’t suffer after every workout. And remember, DOMS is a sign that your body is working to recover and rebuild itself.
Sometimes we have a love-hate relationship with the temporary pain we experience after weight training, and some of us might consider it to be a “good” hurt. We know it sounds a little crazy, but if you can, try and look at your post-workout soreness (as long as it’s within reason) as normal.
Besides, the soreness will soon pass. And as you’re hobbling along, look on the bright side: as your body adapts to the stress of the exercise, you’re only getting stronger, healthier, and re-building a better body!
** WARNING **
It’s a good idea to always be in tune with your body and on the lookout for signs of “bad” pain, such as a localized stabbing, stinging, sharp pain, or tingling, as these sensations could indicate something more serious than acute or immediate soreness. Perhaps you’re performing an exercise incorrectly, or a previous injury (that was never fully healed) is recurring, and without suitable attention, this could lead to further injury.
If this type of pain persists, beyond a couple of minutes, then you may have seriously injured yourself and should stop exercising immediately. If the pain persists for more than 24 hours, consider seeking the assistance of your primary care physician. Hopefully stopping the exercise will prevent further injury, and rest should make the pain go away completely. If not, again, please seek the advice of your personal physician.