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DOMS: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

If you’ve exercised, you’ve likely experienced that post-workout muscle stiffness and pain. Sitting down hurts. Getting up hurts. Raising your arm to brush your teeth hurts. You may wonder if you’ve injured yourself or overdid your workout. And perhaps the most burning question (pun intended) is when it will go away.

The gradually increasing muscle discomfort we experience post-exercise is known as delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS and is typically quite normal. However, knowing when it’s a sign of something more serious is important. Keep reading as we dive into the good, the bad, and the ugly of DOMS.

How DOMS Happens

Our muscles go through a lot of stress when we exercise, particularly if we push the tissue beyond what it’s accustomed to. After participating in any type of strenuous physical activity, especially if it’s the beginning stages of a workout program or new to your body, it’s common to experience muscle soreness. DOMS occurs when the muscle performs an eccentric or lengthening contraction, such as the lengthening portion of a bicep curl or running downhill. In fact, these types of movements cause microscopic tears in the muscle, which experts believe cause pain when combined with inflammation. 

For those new to exercise, DOMS can be a huge deterrent to continuing a workout regimen. After all, no one wants to be in pain! But the truth is that DOMS is normal and, in most cases, will go away after a few days to a week. And it can even be a good sign.

The Upside to Muscle Pain

Experiencing DOMS is usually a positive sign and indicates that the muscle is healing into a stronger state. In short, it means the exercise is doing its job – making you stronger. DOMS can also be a good barometer to help with muscle conditioning. For example, if you repeatedly do the same activity that caused the DOMS over time, you’ll get accustomed to that movement which means less muscle tissue damage and soreness and faster recovery. This can be a sign that it’s time to cross-train or vary your exercise routine to challenge and develop muscle strength. 

But even if DOMS is a good sign, that doesn’t mean it’s fun (although some people do enjoy that immediate body feedback from their workout), and there are some tactics to ease the discomfort, including:

  • Stretching before and after exercise
  • Engaging in lighter activities such as swimming or walking when muscles are sore
  • Increasing blood flow (which brings more healing oxygen and nutrients to the site) through massage or heat

So DOMS is normal and even beneficial. But that doesn’t mean feeling sore needs to be the goal of every workout. It’s important to understand the difference between moderate muscle soreness and overuse or injury.

Soreness Can Sometimes Be a Bad Sign

If you experience soreness that keeps you from performing daily activities, that could be too much soreness and could psychologically keep you from continuing a workout program. Additionally, that soreness and pain could be a sign of something more serious such as a pulled or strained muscle. There are a few questions you can ask yourself to help determine if it’s DOMS or something more serious:

  • Where does it hurt? You may be injured if you can pinpoint the exact area of pain, or it hurts in a small area when you press on it. DOMS usually involves a larger area and is confined to the muscles, such as your abs or quads.

  • Does resting hurt or help? Even though it may feel counterintuitive, light movement helps ease the stiffness and pain of DOMS, and posting up on the couch can make it feel worse. On the other hand, injuries benefit from rest and get worse with activity. So gauge how you feel when moving around.

  • Does stretching help? Recovery techniques such as foam rolling, stretching, and massage will often help alleviate the soreness from DOMS. However, if these techniques don’t ease your pain or even make it worse, then you may be injured. 

If you think your muscle soreness or pain may be more than just DOMS, it’s important to see your doctor to ensure you receive proper treatment to get better faster.

DOMS Isn’t All Good or All Bad

It’s important to remember that experiencing DOMS is neither inherently bad nor good. It can be a positive sign of muscle growth and effective workouts, but it’s not a requirement. You can still achieve your exercise goals without feeling sore after every workout. And it’s important to remember that excessive pain or soreness could be a sign of injury or overuse. At the end of the day, listening to your body can help you challenge yourself to reach your goals while staying safe and injury-free.

If you have questions about DOMS or other exercise-related issues, consider working with one of our fitness coaches. We offer immersive custom fitness coaching to individuals worldwide, and our trainers are certified and ready to help you on your journey. Schedule a chat today!