Many people worldwide are returning to gyms after a forced, extended break. The problem is, depending on whether or how you’ve trained during lockdown, the first day back could be a shock to the system. We all know what it’s like to overdo it, struggling to even climb the stairs at the end of a session – an effect caused by delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). To help you navigate your return to the gym, read on for our key tips to adapt training, nutrition and lifestyle to avoid DOMS, along with the science behind DOMS and the common myths surrounding it.

What is delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)?

Delayed onset muscle soreness is the discomfort often felt 24-48 hours post-exercise, causing your muscles to feel more sensitive to touch and stiffer than usual. It’s not clear why this soreness is delayed but it is thought that sleep may play a role. 

DOMS is caused by physical stress beyond your normal range of intensity and even top-class athletes can experience DOMS if they train hard or long enough. DOMS can occur from incorporating a new exercise into your programme, training longer or harder than usual, or even shifting boxes up and down stairs when moving house. 

How far beyond our “comfort” threshold you need to go before soreness occurs is unknown and depends largely on your level of conditioning. We do know, however, that movements that emphasise the eccentric (lowering) portion of a movement, e.g. stretching the hamstrings in a Romanian deadlift, seem to have a greater impact. However, if the stimulus is novel or heavy enough, it will cause soreness regardless of which portion of the movement is favoured. 

If we are consistent, we adapt to this stimulus and see a ‘repeated bout effect’ (RBE). RBE is an adaptation by our muscles, ligaments and joints that protects us from damage-inducing exercise, an effect that can last for as long as six weeks. This means that if we keep performing a movement, our perceived soreness diminishes over time.

What causes DOMS?

DOMS is often associated with muscle damage caused to muscles during exercise through micro-tears that occur when we stretch and shorten a muscle under load. While muscle damage is one of the proposed mechanisms of hypertrophy, it alone is not a driver of growth and there could be multiple mechanisms that contribute to the typical soreness felt after a hard session.

Damage to connective tissues, muscle-specific inflammation, swelling of muscle fibres, the secretion of substances from muscle cells that support nerve growth (known as neurotrophic factors) and oxidative stress have all been shown to be more or less influential, whether they cause or occur alongside DOMS. 

Common DOMS myths

There are a plethora of myths surrounding DOMS but do these stack up against the evidence? Here’s the science behind them…

Myth: “If I’m not sore I’m not growing”

This originates from old school bodybuilding beliefs that the process of muscle growth goes from muscle damage, to repair, to bigger muscles. More soreness must equal more growth, then? Not necessarily.

Muscle growth and repair from muscle damage are two separate processes. Both require the creation of new proteins but muscle growth involves adding new muscle cells (myofibrils), whereas muscle damage repair requires removing and replacing the damaged area of a muscle fibre.

Evidence shows that muscle protein synthesis is crucial for muscle growth, which only occurs once muscle damage dissipates1. Too much damage could, therefore, be counterproductive to muscle growth.

While DOMS isn’t essential for muscle growth, it is a common by-product of hard training. Effective, challenging training that achieves progressive overload – the process of increasing training stimulus over time – nearly always involves some post-workout discomfort. However, if your goal is fat loss, training so hard you can’t move for a week is hardly conducive for the high activity levels you need for fat loss. While some soreness is inevitable, don’t chase the pain either.

Myth: “Stretching or foam rolling prevent DOMS”

Many of our clients ask why we don’t focus on static stretching post-workout. Research shows that stretching does not have a significant impact when it comes to post-exercise soreness.

Evidence from randomised control studies2 indicates that muscle stretching, even when carried out before or after exercise does not significantly reduce soreness. Other studies show that passive stretching after eccentric exercise does not reduce DOMS3. While static stretching may confer a slight pain relief for around half an hour or so, it’s unlikely to yield longer-term benefits for DOMS.

Foam rolling and other forms of self-massage may prove slightly more effective, however. A 2019 meta-analysis by Wiewelhove et al. in Frontiers in Physiology4 found that pre-workout foam rolling reduced pre-existing DOMS and therefore improved subsequent training performance. The researchers also found that foam rolling immediately post-workout and in the days following did have a small positive effect on soreness.

Myth: “Training through soreness means I’m hardcore”

This mentality is synonymous with the hardcore bodybuilding scene – “no pain, no gain”, right? While success in the gym nearly always involves some degree of discomfort, continually training through soreness could be an indication that you aren’t adequately recovered, potentially limiting your ability to train consistently as well as putting you at greater risk of injury. If you are so sore that you cannot effectively train at a level that is equal or greater than your previous week’s efforts, you’d benefit from taking a day off from training or training different muscle groups.

Myth: “Taking anti-inflammatories will improve my DOMS”

True but at what cost? There is certainly evidence that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, have a small-to-medium benefit for reducing pain5. However, swathes of research show that taking anti-inflammatory drugs around workouts can inhibit muscle growth by up to fifty per cent6. This is because inflammation works on a continuum; too little and there is an insufficient stimulus to grow, too much and muscle tissue breaks down. The key signalling molecules that are active during inflammatory processes are crucial for the repair process after hard exercise and may play a role in enhancing muscle growth. So, while popping a tablet may decrease soreness in the short-term, it may blunt the training adaptations we want for growth. 

Takeaway Tips

We know there’s going to be some discomfort involved in the first day back but there are some ways to adapt training and recovery to maximise progress. 

1. Train Safe…

If during the lockdown, you had access to equipment that allowed you to lift heavily, such as barbells, dumbbells etc., the first day back may be easier. If your training focused on bands, improvised equipment or perhaps no training at all, it may be wise to take a more conservative approach on your return to the gym. We want to resume pre-lockdown levels of training intensity as quickly as possible. Overdo it too soon and you’ll risk injury or being so sore you can’t train at all.

For multi-joint lifts like squats and deadlifts, which are less stable and include a high skill component (and greater risk of injury), focus on ‘grooving in’ the movement and improving neuromuscular adaptations. This might include more warm-up sets and avoiding going to failure. It can also be useful to video your lifts to smooth out bad habits; once this is in place, you can start to build load and reap even bigger gains than before.

2. …But Train Hard!

Focusing on technique doesn’t mean you can’t push yourself. Select a weight that challenges you but stop shy of all-out failure. This will stimulate change while allowing your body to adapt to resuming training.

3. Eat To Fuel Your Body

While nutrition won’t prevent DOMS, it can improve recovery. A balanced diet that prioritises single-ingredient unprocessed foods puts you in a far better position to get back into the swing of training. Build on habits, such as including a serving of protein at every meal, ideally a combination of lean and fatty protein sources and regular servings of omega-3-rich fish, plenty of fibrous vegetables, as well as high-quality fat sources, with nuts, avocados or olive oil. Prioritising effective hydration is also key. Muscles are made up of a high percentage of water and even being slightly dehydrated will increase soreness. 

4. Keep Moving 

Effective recovery comes down to how often and how well you rest. Just as you feel stiff when you wake up, avoiding activity when you are sore is likely to make it worse for longer. Light activity such as walking increases blood flow to muscle tissue and will help alleviate symptoms. 

5. Manage Stress

Stress management is essential for recovery. Evidence shows that chronically elevated levels of cortisol – the body’s stress hormone – accelerates the loss of muscle mass, increases inflammation and negatively impacts fat distribution. Effectively managing stress through strategies such as meditation, guided breathing or a hobby, sets the scene for more effective training and recovery. 

6. Sleep Smarter

Poor sleep elevates cortisol and negatively impacts body composition, cognition, insulin sensitivity as well as the body’s pain response. In simple terms, bad sleep equals worse DOMS. Prioritise good sleep hygiene by keeping a regular sleep schedule, sleeping in a dark, quiet room, avoiding stimulants close to bedtime and reducing exposure to blue light emitting devices.

7. Supplement Wisely

While there is no “magic pill” to prevent DOMS and a balanced diet should be the priority, smart supplementation can provide the icing on the cake.

A great workout comes down to effective preparation. Put on your favourite workout gear and mentally prepare with a pre-workout supplement like our Focus tablets or GPC Drops, which provide a boost without the crash associated with other high-stimulant products.

To maintain energy levels during and after your session, our expertly-designed BCAA drink, Amplify, contains leucine, glycine and glutamine. This unique blend activates muscle growth and recovery and includes electrolytes to replace those lost through sweat. 

Post-workout is the ideal time to get in some fast-digesting protein in the form of a whey protein shake. Easy to prepare and digest, our high-quality U.P. Whey protein blend will reach tissue fast, ensuring optimum recovery with minimum fuss.

While you might not be able to completely escape the post-leg day waddle, nailing the basics of smart training, good nutrition and effective rest will certainly improve recovery and gains in the long term. 

References

1.  Damas, F., Phillips, S.M., Libardi, C.A., Vechin, F.C., Lixandrao, M.E., Jannig, P.R., et al. (2016). Resistance training-induced changes in integrated myofibrillar protein synthesis are related to hypertrophy only after attenuation of muscle damage. J Physiol., 594: 5209–22

2.  Herbert, R.D., de Noronha, M., Kamper, S.J. (2011). Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise (review), Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 7.

3.  H. Lund, P. Vestergaard‐Poulsen, I.‐L., Kanstrup, P., Sejrsen (1998). The effect of passive stretching on delayed onset muscle soreness, and other detrimental effects following eccentric exercise, The Scand J Med Sci Sports, 8, (4): 216-221.

4.  Wiewelhove, T., Döweling, A., Schneider, C., Hottenrott, L., Meyer, T., Kellmann, M., Pfeiffer, M., Ferrauti, A. (2019). A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery. Frontiers in Physiology, 10: 376.

5.  Wongrakpanich, S., Wongrakpanich, A., Melhado, K., & Rangaswami, J. (2018). A Comprehensive Review of Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug Use in The Elderly. Aging and disease, 9 (1): 143–150.

6.  Lilja, M., Mandić, M., Apró, W., Melin, M., Olsson, K., Rosenborg, S., Gustafsson, T., Lundberg, T. R. (2018). High doses of anti-inflammatory drugs compromise muscle strength and hypertrophic adaptations to resistance training in young adults. Acta Physiol, 222 (2) :10.