by Neil Anderson
DOMS = Delayed Onset Muscular Soreness - It is the pain and muscular stiffness felt in muscles hours to days after strenuous exercise. The pain is felt most strongly 24-72 hours after exertion.
On the Monday following Thrust-O-Rama, this seems like a timely write-up, so let's go over it. Let's go a little deeper than we've gone in the past. It stands to reason, if we know more about muscle soreness we'll be better armed to prevent and deal with it in the future.
What is muscular soreness?
We aren't really sure. We have a lot of theories about it. We are fairly sure we know the causes (GPP!). But, scientists aren't solid on the mechanisms - yet. Not reliably. The cool thing is, they've made a lot of progress toward understanding it. They've even debunked some commonly held beliefs about DOMS that most of us hold dear (It's probably not lactic acid - but we'll get into that). We've also learned how to better treat it. More than anything, we know which exercises and activities are most likely to cause it. Let's start there.
Why do we get DOMS?
GPP man! Seriously. GPP is designed for max efficiency and effectiveness. This requires we do the movements which are most beneficial. Which movements are most beneficial? Natural movements. The ones we do in real life. The ones that include ECCENTRIC contractions.
An eccentric contraction is where your muscle elongates, in a controlled manner, under a load. Think lowering a biceps curl slowly. Lifting a load, or shortening the muscle has a different name. It's CONCENTRIC. Think raising a biceps curl.
Now the thing is, ECCENTRIC contractions are thought to do several very notable things.
1 - They help you control movements (Otherwise you'd be all gas pedal and no brakes).
2 - They are the primarily responsible for strengthening of muscles.
3 - They cause most of the DOMS.
Yep, two goods and a bad.
So, I just need to avoid ECCENTRIC contractions and I get no more soreness? Maybe, but you have to finish the sentence. You'll need to tack this on:
... and not be as healthy, functional, or strong as I'd like/need to be.
What is the mechanism?
As I said before, the mechanism of DOMS is not well understood by science. Not reliably. But there are 3 main theories (used to be 4) for why intense activity causes stiffness and soreness.
1. Microtrauma - This DOMS theory points out that after intense eccentric exercise, microscopic lesions at the Z line of the muscle sarcomere occur.
Here is the thing, you can't say "small tears in the muscles" like most of the meatheads down at the popular gyms are saying. It's incorrect. The tears are microscopic and only occur to parts of the muscle cells. "Small tears" would likely cause scar tissue and other types of damage. If done often enough, it would render muscles immobile and mostly useless.
2. Enzyme Efflux - This theory suggests, accumulation of calcium in a damaged muscle (from intense activities) is thought to slow circulation to muscle cells. This causes further build-up of calcium and is thought to activate proteases and phospholipases which break down muscle protein. This causes accumulation of histamines, prostaglandins, and potassium which lead to inflammation and pain.
3. Nerve Irritation - This theory is evocative, but is weakly researched. Temporary swelling in the muscles due to increased blood supply and lactic acid accumulated during activity and is thought to irritate the nerve endings within the muscle cell, damaging them slightly. Once the nerve endings are irritated, thy become inflamed and painful. It is thought that there is a delayed effect here. That it takes time for the pain to set in because the damaged nerve endings take time to regenerate. Only after regeneration (24-72 hrs) do they transfer the pain. This might be closely correlated to why it takes most of us 24-72 hours to become sore from a workout.
Lactic Acid Build Up - We used to think that the build up of lactic acid (focus on the word 'acid') during intense activity was toxic to the muscle cells. That it literally burnt the cell from the inside and contributed to the pain and swelling of DOMS.
This theory has largely been rejected by most scientists and trainers. We understand lactic acid better now. We've learned that it doesn't linger in the cell or blood stream as long as was previously thought. Scientists have also done studies showing that concentric movements (cycling, swimming etc,) cause just as much lactic acid build-up within the muscle as eccentric/concentric activities. Yet, cycling and swimming don't cause DOMS to nearly the same extent, if at all.
So, which is MOST responsible?
It's weird. A lot of folks do a lot of arguing about which of the above is most responsible for DOMS. I'm personally going with - ALL OF THEM. It wouldn't surprise me if there were more too. So, I'm leaving room for new discoveries related to DOMS in my way of thinking for future enlightenment.
It occurs to me, the more we know about DOMS, the more we can avoid it. It also occurs to me a little bit of it is necessary for improved health and fitness. We've emphatically been on both sides of the soreness issue. Years ago, we thought it silly, needless and wasteful to become sore from a workout. Back then our clients weren't nearly as fit, functional, capable, or as injury free as they are now. They just plain weren't as healthy.
Crap. That couldn't sound more depressing, right?
How can we prevent DOMS?
Easy. Start with slow movements, low volume and light intensity. Build up gradually.
There are numerous studies that show Static Stretching and Warming Up don't prevent soreness. Here is a couple of them:
High, DM; Howley ET; Franks BD (December 1989). "The effects of static stretching and warm-up on prevention of delayed-onset muscle soreness.". Res Q Exerc Sport. 60 (4): 357–61
Herbert, R. D.; De Noronha, M. (2007). "Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise". In Herbert, Robert D. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.
Empirically, I've never known stretching (before and/or after) to garner much relief. I'd personally never rely on it alone.
We've written many articles on how to prevent and treat muscle soreness.
We'll continue to share more as we learn more. For now, it appears PREVENTION seems to be your only hope. Once you've got it, you're doomed to suffer through it to the bitter end. Well ... that may not be entirely true. There is one OTHER thing that might help.
I know, it's counter-intuitive to go right AT something that hurt you once. But exercise is cool that way. More of it (with limits) seems to be the only thing that is able to prevent future bouts of DOMS. And due to an effect called exercise-induced analgesia, exercise is the only proven (non-drug) method for temporarily suppressing soreness.