A common question I get from exercisers is: “Do I have to feel sore after I workout to know it was a good one?”
The answer can be relatively complex.
What is DOMS?
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DOMS, is an acronym for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness: the discomfort you feel in your muscles 24-48 hours after you have exerted your body more than what it is accustomed to (a principle called overload).
Sometimes, DOMS is mild: you go to sit down and you can feel your quads “talking” to you a bit.
Other times, DOMS makes it difficult to perform everyday tasks, like walking up the stairs or carrying groceries without extreme discomfort.
Since DOMS is related to overloading your body with a new level of stress, it seems reasonable to assume you should always be sore after a workout if you keep progressing your workouts, but is this always true?
No straight answer
The answer to this question is not simple one
DOMS is caused by small microtears in the muscles. These microtears then repair themselves, creating a stronger (sometimes larger) muscle fiber.
DOMS typically will occur in higher levels in beginner exercisers, and as they continue in their program, the DOMS will diminish over time. DOMS will also occur in veteran exercisers progressing their program or trying a new method or modality of exercise.
For example, you may experience DOMS when you have been doing solely cardiovascular training and begin to add free weight training to your routine.
On one hand, since DOMS is related to overloading your muscles with more stress than they are accustomed to (by doing more repetitions, using more weight, completing more sets, or using less rest than usual), it can be a good thing.
It can show that you have pushed your body to a new level and the body will then attempt to repair and strengthen itself in response.
On the other hand, since DOMS does cause small tears in the muscle, recovery and rest are vital for the muscle to repair and grow.
Too much DOMS can be an indication that you overdid it in the gym.
I typically look for low to moderate levels of DOMS that allow my clients to continue their everyday lifestyle, while feeling as though they completed a workout the day before.
They may feel a bit of soreness as they walk up the stairs in the morning, but they are still able to walk up the stairs with only minimal to moderate discomfort.
This is what I call “functional soreness.”
Sometimes, DOMS lasts a really long time (more than two days) or is severe. DOMS that is severe or lasts longer than two days can be detrimental to progress.
DOMS is a protective mechanism in the body that prevents the body from doing too much. If you are too sore to complete your workouts for the next 3 days, you have missed out on the opportunity to exercise due to too much soreness.
DOMS and progress
As stated earlier, people typically experience DOMS when they try something new, lift heavier than usual, or are new to exercise.
I do not believe that DOMS is a requirement to see progress.
I have many clients who consistently see results who do not experience high levels of DOMS on a regular basis. Your muscle can still respond to the stimulus you provide as long as you continually change up and progress your program.
On the other hand, if you are not experiencing soreness after your workouts because you have been doing the same exercise routine (with the same weights) for weeks or months, it may be indicative of you needing to change up your program to help you see results.
After changing things up, you may begin to experience a new level of DOMS-and (hopefully) new results!
Connect with Expert Sarah Walentynowicz