Everyone at one time or another has experienced the soreness, stiffness and sometimes outright pain after doing something physically demanding – a hard workout, an unusually long hike, renovating the house or unexpected physical jobs at work.
Usually some level of soreness and stiff feelings around the joints that we used is apparent the following day and can last for a few days up to a week or even more in some cases.
This is a phenomenon properly called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and happens occasionally not just to athletes, but anyone who is at least moderately active.
Every workout that generates a positive change, whether building muscle, improving the cardiovascular system, improving balance or coordination, requires that you tax your system a little more than it is used to.
In the case of muscle building, it means that you are breaking down muscle structure a little so that the body repairs the damage to a greater extent than before exercise.
This is what causes strength increases.
But if the damage was sufficient enough, then your body has to contend with more breakdown and repair than usual, which causes a cascade of events to happen to allow enough repair to take place, and one of these things is a stiffness and soreness that limits how much you move.
Your body probably does this so that repair can take place relatively unhindered. It might follow from this that the amount of soreness is a good indicator of the amount of repair needing to take place. Some believe that the greater the soreness, the greater the breakdown, and ultimately the greater the benefit – this has led to the adage ‘no pain, no gain’.
But recent research shows that this is not the case.
Despite the exact steps in this process still not being precisely known, it has appeared that small tears in the muscle or connective tissue cause biochemical changes, inflammation and irritation of pain receptors.
However, MRI studies have shown that DOMS occurs before swelling takes place. So although DOMS may provide a general indication that some degree of damage to muscle tissue has occurred, it cannot be used as a definitive measure of the phenomenon.
This soreness manifests itself within the first six to 12 hours, peaking about 48 hours later and can persist for many days after. But extended periods or intensity of pain, along with swelling, heat, tenderness could indicate some level of injury.
The post-exercise soreness people feel, even experienced weight lifters, seems to be individualized and depends on many factors, including genetics, the type of exercise done, the intensity, duration and how novel the activity is.
One method that appears to induce DOMS is exercising a muscle at a longer length, while contracting a muscle forcefully when it is already short does not seem to cause soreness.
Another source of DOMS that is confirmed in the research is what’s called eccentric contraction. Examples of this would be running downhill (as opposed to uphill), or lowering a barbell in the gym (called negatives).
The lowering phase of exercise is more associated with DOMS than the lifting phase, though DOMS can also occur with the lifting phase (concentric contraction) and even cardiovascular exercise. However, studies have shown inflammation is often not present in these cases.
Research has shown that the same degree of muscle growth can occur in heavy weight lifters whether DOMS is present or not. Even in the same person, certain muscles can experience DOMS regularly, while others do not.
So the conclusion from this research is that strength development or muscle growth is not contingent on being sore after your workout.
You can get gain without pain.
Since soreness or pain can detrimentally alter movement patterns and also reduce motivation to exercise, strategies to combat DOMS would be valuable to understand. Ironically, it turns out that repeating the same activity that caused the soreness will usually help to reduce it, although reducing the intensity or duration of the exercise might be necessary. The reason this happens is probably due to the nervous system getting more efficient in recruiting more of the muscle on subsequent sessions.
The crucial thing will be to make sure that your biomechanics are maintained perfectly otherwise you may be inviting injury to occur.
Another method that appears to work well is doing moderate cardiovascular activity such as swim, bike or jog.
Kerry Senchyna is owner of West Coast Kinesiology and is a provincially