Feeling soreness or tightness in your muscles in the days following an intense workout is completely normal (and expected when starting a new exercise program after a long layoff). These muscle aches are better known as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). It’s something we’ve all experienced before.
But, what causes muscle soreness, and (more importantly) what should you do about it?
What Causes Muscle Soreness?
Intense exercise creates microtrauma (small tears) in muscle fibers. To protect the injured area and facilitate the repair, recovery, and healing process, the body’s inflammatory process kicks into gear. This process usually takes place over several hours, which is why you start to feel muscle soreness a day or two after a workout.
Side note: Inflammation does get a bad rap at times, but that typically refers to chronic inflammation -- a state in which the inflammatory process never gets a break. This leads to a cavalcade of adverse effects in the body and contributes to the development and progression of a number of diseases.
While muscle soreness is very common for individuals who are just coming back to training after a long layoff (or those starting for the first time in their lives), it’s also possible that long-time veterans of the gym can develop DOMS. This usually occurs when switching up exercises in a training program, such as shifting from back squats to front squats or barbell bench press to dumbbell bench press.
New stimuli from different exercise variations stress the muscles, ligaments, and connective tissue in a slightly different manner. Until your body gets accustomed to the new training stress, DOMS are expected.
How Can You Reduce or Prevent Muscle Soreness?
While your natural inclination may be to pop a couple of pain-killers (NSAIDs) to dull the aches and pains, that’s one of the last things you want to do.
The reason for this is that while NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) may reduce your feelings of DOMS, they’re also hindering your potential muscle gains. The reason for this is that NSAIDs, including ibuprofen, blunt inflammation (a vital part of muscle recovery, repair, and growth). Research in healthy men and women found that high doses of NSAIDs can limit strength and muscle gains. An exception to this is elderly populations, which usually present with higher levels of systemic inflammation (as we mentioned are actually deleterious to health and well-being).
Another common tactic used to limit muscle soreness is using an ice bath or cold plunge (aka cold therapy). Cold therapy does help limit inflammation and swelling following training, but (similar to NSAIDs), it can also limit hypertrophy and blunt other beneficial effects from resistance training.
The takeaway here is that if you’re seeking maximal gains in size, strength, or other areas of athletic development, avoid using NSAIDs and cold water immersion (ice baths, etc.) as the blunt the natural (and beneficial) inflammation post-workout, thereby hindering your gains.
As with everything in life, there are exceptions. If you are an in-season athlete (baseball, football, basketball, etc.), your primary focus is not on maximizing hypertrophy, strength, or speed development. It’s on maximizing your body’s recovery ability so that you can compete at a high level during the next bout of competition.
In these cases, using cold water therapy or the occasional pain-killer may be beneficial. Still, NSAIDs are not without their own downsides and risks, including GI distress, organ damage, and more.
With all that in mind, what can athletes focused on maximizing size and strength development do to limit DOMS?
#1 Keep Training
While this might sound counterintuitive, one of the main reasons for muscle soreness is engaging in intense physical activity after being inactive for a prolonged period of time.
Muscles that are detrained are more susceptible to muscle damage from lifting weights, than their better conditioned counterparts. This is why DOMS typically is worse when you first start training compared to after you’ve been training consistently. Keep in mind that you may still get DOMS when changing up variables in your training (new exercises, new rep schemes, etc.) but they won’t be anywhere near as bad as the first time you experienced muscle soreness.
#2 Active Recovery
Active recovery is low-level physical activity that increases circulation and blood flow, supplying trained muscles with key nutrients (vitamins, minerals, protein, amino acids, carbs, etc.) and removing metabolic waste products generated from exercise.
Some of our favorite active recovery modalities are low-impact activities, such as walking, rowing, swimming, yoga, foam rolling, or hiking.
Once DOMS have set in, there’s not much you can do to “eliminate” them. It’s just going to take time. Taking a warm bath, getting a massage, walking, and/or stretching can all help speed things along, but at the end of the day, your body needs time to heal.
To optimize natural healing as much as possible, make sure to get enough sleep each night, consume enough dietary protein and calories for your goals, manage stress, and tailor your training (volume, intensity, and frequency) to your lifestyle.