FITNESS MYTH: POST-EXERCISE MUSCLE SORENESS IS AN INDICATOR OF HYPERTROPHY
The correlation between delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and the quality of the workout is a rampant myth that won’t seem to die. Even my experienced clients will report on how the new exercise block I sent caused them to be “so sore.” Generally these comments are made with a smile on their face and with a semi-sadistic/boastful tone. Other comments are more straight forward to reveal that many people believe that soreness is a reliable indicator of a good workout. I’ve even experienced complaints from clients that their exercise block is no longer making them sore, suggesting that they need a new plan. More concerning are the personal trainers who pile on copious amounts of un-calculated volume simply to brag about how they torture their clients. Indeed, the idea that DOMS equates to an effective workout has led gym-goers and trainers alike to stray from evidence-based programming in order to “chase soreness.”
In order to decide whether or not DOMS is something that we should seek out, it will help to begin by looking at the possible mechanisms. Some theories suggest that DOMS could be related to the muscle damage that occurs from new exercises (Schoenfeld & Contreras, 2013). Its thought that the microscopic tears to connective tissue elements make pain receptors more sensitive, so that when the inflammatory response happens, certain noxious chemicals can act on type III and type IV nerve afferents that are responsible for signaling pain to our central nervous system (Schoenfeld & Contreras, 2013). This, in combination with structural disruptions to the extracellular matrix and edema can further sensitize pain receptors. Thus DOMS could be a product of exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD).
EIMD is thought to be one of several mechanisms thought to achieve muscle hypertrophy (growth) (Schoenfeld, 2010). EIMD is theorized to influence gene expression that strengthens muscle tissue and helps to increase the number of contractile proteins. Another possible way that EIMD leads to hypertrophy is by facilitating the activation of satellite cells. When satellite cells are stimulated they create myoblasts (precursor cells) that aid in remodeling muscle tissue (Schoenfeld & Contreras, 2013). Finally, cellular swelling could also be another mechanism by which EIMD works. EIMD leads to an accumulation of fluid and proteins within the muscle fiber that exceeds the ability of the cell to drain. This is thought to increase anabolism by stimulating muscle protein synthesis (Schoenfeld & Contreras, 2013). Although it is likely that EIMD leads to hypertrophy, and DOMS might be a product of EIMD, it would be negligent to draw the conclusion that DOMS is an indicator of hypertrophy.
The first reason being that DOMS isn’t always an accurate gauge of EIMD. In some studies it was seen that many of the known indicators of EIMD like plasma creatine kinase levels, maximal isometric strength, upper arm circumference and range of motion were poorly correlated to DOMS (Nosaka et al., 2002). The soreness associated with DOMS also seems to peak long before the cellular swelling is seen under magnetic resonance imaging (Schoenfeld & Contreras, 2013). Tee et al. (2007) reports the presence of DOMS after marathon running and long cycling bouts. Neither of these activities are associated with significant hypertrophy, thus we can’t conclude that the presence alone of DOMS indicates a hypertrophic effect.
It seems that DOMS is the most noticeable when someone is performing a new exercise movement (Byrnes & Clarkson, 1986). Oftentimes my clients will report feeling sore during the first couple weeks of a new block but much less/not at all after that. Eccentric exercise have been shown to especially bring on DOMS, but concentric exercises can as well (Cleak & Eston, 1992). The soreness can onset as early as 6-8 hours post-exercise but usually peaks around 48 hours (Schoenfeld & Contreras, 2013). But there exists a high level of interindividual variability in both the literature and anecdotally seen within my occupation (Schoenfeld & Contreras, 2013). Some bodybuilders and experienced lifters will almost never feel DOMS while others will experience it almost always when they train. There has also been some reporting that certain individuals will always feel DOMS when they train certain muscle groups, but never when they train others. Given that this has come from individuals who have significant amounts of hypertrophy in the muscles that never feel DOMS, adds to the inconsistencies of DOMS as a predictor of hypertrophy.
Beyond the inconsistencies of DOMS, there are other risks associated with constantly seeking muscle soreness. Excessive soreness has been shown to take up to 3 weeks to fully recover from (Schoenfeld & Contreras, 2013). So even if you had 1 great session, it might prevent you from having other great sessions until you recover from the first. Also, significant discomfort may cause a lifter to alter their movement pattern, trying to avoid the pain, leading to improper form and possible injury. DOMS is also associated with a reduction of joint torque and muscle force output (Schoenfeld & Contreras, 2013).
Although certain degrees of DOMS may be unavoidable with novel exercises, there are certain techniques that seem to help. “The repeated bout effect” suggests that subsequent sessions that work the same muscle group can stop some of the pain (Schoenfeld & Contreras, 2013). Therefore, someone who consistently experiences DOMS may benefit from a program that repeats some exercises in a lighter fashion after a more taxing day. Other research that suggests that eccentric exercises cause more DOMS and that peaking resistance at shorter muscle lengths reduces DOMS could be a short term way to reduce pain but could lead to long-term opportunity costs for hypertrophy (Schoenfeld & Contreras, 2013).
Given the state of current research it would seem that DOMS cannot be used as a reliable measure of hypertrophy. Given that it can be present during strenuous aerobic exercise or other activities that aren’t “muscle-building” type activities also decreases it's credibility. Even in a hypertrophic setting, some lifters will experience it while others will not despite both showing great hypertrophy. Not only is DOMS unreliable, it can also be dangerous, especially for new lifters. One positive that we can take away from those that “chase DOMS” is that they are working very hard to earn their muscle growth. Especially amongst experience lifters, showing up and putting forth as much effort as possible (within a calculated program) will aid in facilitating long-term hypertrophic adaptations (Schoenfeld & Contreras, 2013).
Byrnes, W. C., & Clarkson, P. M. (1986). Delayed onset muscle soreness and training. Clincs in Sports Medicine, 5(3), 605-614.
Cleak, M. J., & Eston, R. G. (1992). Muscle soreness, swelling, stiffness and strength loss after intense eccentric exercise. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 26, 267-272.
Nosaka, K., Newton, M., & Sacco, P. (2002). Delayed-onset muscle soreness does not reflect the magnitude of eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage. Scandinavian Journal of Medical Science and Sports, 12, 337-346.
Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-2872.
Schoenfeld, B. J., & Contreras, B. (2013). Is postexercise muscle soreness a valid indicator of muscular adaptations? Strength & Conditioning Journal, 35(5), 16-21.
Tee, J. C., Bosch, A. N., & Lambert, M. I. (2007). Metabolic consequences of exercise-induced muscle damage. The Journal of Sports Medicine, 37, 827-836.