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Is it more effective to be sore after my work out?
If you have ever worked out hard in the gym or during any sport, then chances are you have felt this soreness. It is a side effect of strenuous physical activity and it tends to be called DOMS (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness).
It comes on from 6 to 24 hours after exercise, peaking at 48 hours and can be very uncomfortable. Some consider this to be the barometer of an effective workout. Not surprisingly, this tends to put off more recreational gym goers who don’t wish to be this ‘hardcore’. So, how true is this statement?
To be able to attempt to answer this question, we must first look at what causes this soreness.
What causes DOMS?
DOMS is an almost guaranteed response to unfamiliar muscular activity. Current understanding that DOMS relates to muscle damage is well accepted but not fully understood. It appears to be caused by inflammation from micro-tears in the muscle and connective tissues. The bodies attempt to repair the injured site may also worse the pain via pressure caused by edema and an increase in Reactive oxygen species (ROS) (a natural by-product of oxygen metabolism).
Studies have shown DOMS is most often caused from eccentric exercise. Essentially, whenever the muscle is under tension, during its lengthening phase. For example, trying to resist straightening your arm against an external force applies an eccentric contraction to the bicep.
Why DOMS is not a good marker of success
Theoretically speaking, the onset of DOMS should relate to muscle growth. The biochemical markers and stresses onto the muscle tissue from DOMS, do fit nicely into the super-compensation theory (provided the soreness is mild enough to not hamper the on-going training schedule). However, it has been shown by top level sport scientists (Schoenfeld et al 2013) that muscle damage is NOT obligatory for muscular growth so any anabolic effect of DOMS is purely additional.
It is also worth considering DOMS from a practical standpoint. Severe muscular pain can hamper subsequent performance by 50% or more. This will decrease the ability to complete an effective workout during this timeframe and as such, may negate any benefits gained.
Other problems that exist when trying to use DOMS as an effective exercise indicator include, the lack of reliability between individual pain, and the correlation with actual muscle damage. There have been studies where subjects showed no muscular damage (as measured by MRI and blood tests) despite feeling the DOMS effect.
In addition to this, there also appears to be a vast range of individual variance to the level of pain, for a set amount of damage. Therefore, using DOMS as an exercise effectiveness indicator requires caution.
Anecdotally, many successfully bodybuilders carrying a large amount if muscle mass have reported rarely suffering DOMS. Their muscle mass is testament to the fact they are growing. This further backs up the premise that DOMS isn’t mandatory for muscular growth.
The risk of Rhabdo
In extreme cases, however unlikely, there is the risk of Rhabdomyolysis (Rhabdo for short). When this is caused by exercise, it is usually due to substantial muscle tissue breakdown, that the body struggles to repair. This can lead to renal failure (and even death) as the kidneys are unable to cope with the plasma by-products of muscle breakdown.
This is extremely rare but can be associated with a huge volume of training and an attitude of promoting muscular soreness. Clearly if DOMS is not your aim, this becomes less likely.
What is the practical application?
Whilst the jury is still out on whether DOMS can enhance muscle building, it is still poorly understood and is certainly not a mandatory part of a workout.
It MAY assist maximal muscle hypertrophy, but this is quite possibly irrelevant for all but a small number of competitive body-builders or professional athletes. For most recreational exercisers, DOMS should not be the aim. You can gain muscle without it, you will be far more comfortable, and you will be better able to perform your subsequent tasks/training. Also, let us not forget that DOMS is highly specific to the individual and thus is not a reliable effectiveness indicator.
Is Postexercise Muscle Soreness a Valid Indicator of Muscular Adaptations? (Schoenfeld, Contreras), National Strength and Conditioning Association, Vol 35, No 5, Oct 2013