For most, to define the term “bittersweet” is that moment of arousing pleasure tinged with sadness or pain. Or for as we fitness enthusiasts call it; “DOMS”
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness: Friend or Foe?
As we stagger in agony like a cowboy after leg day, we also present our disdain with a gracious smile from ear to ear!
We refer to DOMS as the pain and stiffness that you may temporality feel after a workout. Generally brought upon via a strenuous or unaccustomed degree of exercise-induced stress, and this discomfort can last from several hours to several days.
Over the years there have been many different commonly believed reasons for experiencing DOMS, such as from a build-up of lactic acid; but the one most commonly trusted explanation is via tiny microscopic tears to the muscle fibres themselves.
So if DOMS are a result of muscle damage, does that translate into an effective workout? Not really.
To best stimulate muscle growth, is to consistently lift heavier (progressive overload) weights via compound, multi-joint movements.
And as DOMS can be brought about simply by unaccustomed action (like being dragged Christmas shopping for 6 hours that always leaves my legs smoked), it’s not always a precise indicator of an effective workout.
Physiologically speaking of course! But I admit, personally speaking, DOMS can be a real mental booster! For regular gym goers like us, we can tend to be a little sadistic from time to time.
When you get a kick out of waking up a little sore and stiff the next day. But not so much as it is totally debilitating because that will definitely be a pain in the ass (oops, limit your performance).
So we are in agreeance that we like to be a ‘little’ sore the next day, much like a badge of honour for a session well done.
But not so sore that we feel totally immobilised and squatting (for the toilet) is worse than your widowmaker set the day before?
I’m often asked... Are there ways to minimise the likelihood of DOMS to prevent a downturn in exercise intensity and performance?
I think there is, so let me share 2 strategies that I employ myself.
1. The BEFORE
If DOMS can be influenced by new or unaccustomed activity, is there something we can do to potentially limit their impact from an upcoming session? I think so.
If you have been training consistently and decide to change your exercises and do some “new stuff”, you may experience a little more post-session discomfort than normal.
Not enough to slow you down, but enough to make you aware that you spent some time with the iron in your hands.
But over time I’ve found that the 2 biggest influences are from taking time off, and big variations in programming in sudden changes in rep ranges.
Or being new to the gym, or if you are getting into it after some time away than limiting your workout intensity may be a great idea.
For the first week or 2, maybe just working to 80% or so of your capacity. That could be lifting a little lighter than normal, or stopping a few reps short of failure.
You may say a diminished level of intensity may limit the stimulation for new growth? Maybe…
But you have been away for some time, your so-called “less-than-all-out” may still have a powerful impact! Plus, you don’t want to be THAT sore from yesterday that you don’t want to go back in tomorrow!
The other variable that can inflict PAIN is a sudden change in rep range.
Say you have been slowly lowering your reps over a number of weeks (or maybe been consistently working on a specific rep range ie 8-6 reps) and then you suddenly decide to “go nuts” and start working in a 15-20 rep range, that sudden change in volume/output (on something that you are unaccustomed too) may leave you feeling pretty average the next day.
That’s why I think it is always best to slowly and progressively change your rep ranges (ie moving from a 12-10 range to a 6-4 range over a number of weeks) and then when you go back to a higher range (ie starting a new program), perform an ‘active recovery’ week at a sub-maximal level of intensity.
2. The AFTER
What about after the workout? Definitely! I am a big believer in that you are made of by what you put in.
So if your diet consists of a lot of highly processed meals (which are traditionally higher in Omega 6 fats which are linked to influencing inflammation), it may also be a good time to pay more attention to what you are eating.
I have always been a big proponent of Omega 3, and especially Fish Oil.
Fish oil has been shown to reduce inflammation (think swelling and discomfort). Fish oil has also been shown to assist in building muscle and burning fat; though that may be another article altogether.
Though there is no official recommendation for reducing inflammation, I have found that following the guide on your bottle and leaning more towards the higher recommendation does a good job.
A final word on DOMS
As overall lifestyle can also influence the possibility of DOMS (from sleep and general recovery, to nutrition and everything else in between), so does your consistency in training.
Doing the same thing over time, you will find that the workouts that once debilitated you don’t seem to have the same ‘negative’ effect (DOMS).
That doesn’t mean your workout wasn’t on point; it just means you didn’t end up “broken” the next day.
PROGRESS is best defined as when you go in the following week and beat your previous best performance; you don’t need to overly suffer in between sessions to achieve that.