Gym junkies would be familiar with the difficulty of walking up/down a flight of stairs in the days following a particularly brutal lower-body training session. It’s not just the legs – workout sessions sometimes leave us nursing multiple muscle aches for up to 3 or 4 excruciating days. This soreness might get you wondering whether you did a great job working those muscles, or whether you were simply doing it wrong. Let’s break down the answer by explaining the cause of this “sweet” pain.
After a hard workout, we usually don’t feel anything until the next day when the pain hits us all at once. This sensation is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). The occurrence of DOMS is physiological in nature, relating to the mechanics of your workout and its impact on your body. There are two main explanations for why DOMS happens.
1. Micro-trauma to muscles
Lots of mechanical tension is generated when muscles undergo eccentric contraction, which is basically the movement of an active muscle when you lengthen it under load. For example, lowering a dumbbell during a bicep curl is a form of eccentric movement. A high volume of loading causes micro-tears in the muscle and tissue breakdown, which is what causes the familiar soreness the next day.
2. Inflammation and swelling
Some exercises tend to injure the membrane of our muscle cells, trigger a biological response in that our body produces inflammatory mediating compounds such as leukotriene and prostaglandin. Increased levels of prostaglandin in your body explains the pain you feel, as these hormones fix injury through stimulating the formation of blood clots that happen to come with the side effect of pain. So even though you’re hurting, it’s a sign that your hormones are working to fix the injury caused by mechanical damage! This is why you should be careful about using anti-inflammatory medicine or excessively icing your muscles to reduce swelling, as some extent of inflammation helps in the recovery process.
Knowing the reasons why DOMS occurs, it’s safe to conclude that DOMS is neither a sign of a successful workout or that we’re simply too weak. The science behind mechanical damage indicates that to a greater extent, it’s the type and intensity of exercise rather than the perceived productivity of a workout that causes us to ache. Generally, exercises that frequently result in DOMS involve lots of eccentric contraction such as dumbbell shoulder presses or split squats. Some elements of intensity in your workout isn’t a bad thing, as increasing the intensity is a means of achieving progression in your muscle-building goals.
A final piece of good news about DOMS is that they don’t actually affect your performance. Your muscles won’t be any weaker despite the pain – it’s the discomfort that holds you back most of the time. The frequency of experiencing DOMS also decreases as your muscles get stronger and your body becomes more conditioned. The next time you feel that ache, dig deep and press on through!