Personal trainer Ben Carpenter explains what DOMS is and why muscle soreness isn’t always an indicator of a successful workout.

If your goal is to build muscle, chances are you already know the feeling of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Perhaps you have found yourself limping up and down the stairs for a couple of days after a leg workout, or struggling to lift your arm above your head after you train your upper body. One of the best foam rollers for post-workout recovery usually helps, but it’s good to know what it is and what it can tell you.

In simple terms, the theory is that lifting weights causes exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD), and your body adapts to this muscle damage by growing bigger and stronger.

What is DOMS?

“DOMS is muscular inflammation that occurs when you perform a new exercise, return to an exercise you haven’t done in a while, or increase the intensity of an exercise,” adds James Staring, the founder and lead fitness coach at Fit to Last. “In short, when you try something new or make it more challenging, DOMS can occur.

“DOMS is part of your body’s process of adapting to the new exercise or increased intensity of an existing exercise. Through consistent hydration, mobility exercise and quality sleep, you’ll adapt faster and feel sore for a shorter period.”

Why DOMS disappears

You can grow muscle tissue even in the absence of exercise-induced muscle damage, so just because soreness shows you did something in the gym, it doesn’t mean that it always correlates with how effective a workout is.

For example, you are most likely to feel sore when you provide your body with a novel stimulus – something new you aren’t used to doing. A beginner may feel sore after their first squat workout, but Olympic lifters and powerlifters – who have been routinely squatting for years – won’t feel as sore as they did after their first workout, yet they will continue to get stronger. This demonstrates the power of the ‘repeated bout effect’, where soreness dissipates when you practice the same thing repeatedly.

As your body often feels sore when you do something new, you could feel soreness after doing a yoga workout where you held poses you aren’t used to holding, or running a marathon for the first time ever, but neither of these workouts would be considered the best choices for muscle building.

How DOMS can impact your workouts

Also, extreme soreness can hinder your subsequent performance, so if you perform a leg workout with several brand-new exercises and then can’t walk for a week because your legs are so sore, it reduces your capacity to train legs again. If you’re in so much pain that you have to skip workouts or can’t improve on your last session’s performance, that can obviously hinder your long-term progress.

The simplified summary is that soreness is not a bad thing and you don’t need to avoid it. If your goal is to build a lot of muscle, you will probably flirt with muscle soreness from time to time. But soreness is not a reliable indicator of long-term progress, so proactively striving to be as sore as possible after every single workout is not a smart idea.

Focus on long-term progress, not short-term soreness.

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