3 Myths About Muscle Soreness And How To Use It To Your Advantage
If you’ve ever worked out or done strenuous activity, you’ve felt it before, DOMS, or delayed-onset-muscle-soreness. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misconceptions about what it is and what it indicates. So let’s clear the air.
Myth #1: You need DOMS in order to indicate a good workout
AKA., the “no pain no gain” mentality. Where most people go wrong is when they use soreness as an assurance that they’re doing something right. While it is true that you need to challenge yourself in order to stimulate adaptation, you don’t need to feel like you can’t walk the next day to say that you had a good workout.
There are two main arguments as to why this is.
1) The level of soreness you will feel is correlated with how different a training stimulus is compared to previous ones.
Meaning if you go from not working out for three years to a 45-minute high-intensity workout, you’re going to be really sore. But if you’ve been doing that high-intensity workout for two or three weeks you won’t feel nearly as sore because your body is getting used to it.
Whenever your body isn’t used to something, in this case, a type of workout, then you’re going to feel sorer. This doesn’t mean the workout was more effective in any way, it just means that is was different.
2) The level of soreness one feels is highly variable and individual
Pain tolerance can vary significantly from person to person. A workout that might make it hard for someone to walk might not even phase the next person. The perception of pain plays a role here as well.
There is even a possible genetic component to this, but the research is still out on that concept. There has never been a link made between soreness and the level of adaptation a person will receive. (1)
This makes soreness highly unreliable as a marker of a good workout.
Myth #2: Tearing your muscle in any respect is a bad thing
When we work out, we do tear muscles to some degree. The tearing is what causes the soreness the next day. When people hear about “tearing” they get scared and think about possible injuries that may occur. This particular type of tearing happens on a micro-level and doesn’t include full-on muscle strains.
These micro-tears that we purposely create heal back stronger than before which is the entire purpose of training. Macro tears occur when technique is poor or when you stress a muscle beyond its capability. This is when an injury occurs, and it shouldn’t happen with responsible programming.
Myth #3: Stretching before and after a workout decreases DOMS and helps you heal faster
No and no.
Stretching has never been shown to decrease DOMS after a workout nor to help it heal faster after the fact.
All stretching does is relieve tension in tight muscles and play a part in flexibility training. It may be a decent way to cool down, but more research is showing that stretching isn’t as important as we once thought. Rather, dynamic mobility work has been shown to be more effective in increasing flexibility. But that’s a topic for another day.
The best thing you can do for DOMS is to eat well and sleep. Give your body recovery time (rest) and the resources (calories) to do so. That’s how you’ll heal the quickest.
There is one way that soreness can be used to your advantage. As I mentioned before, the more you do a workout, the more your body will get used to that style. Lack of soreness can be a sign of adaptation and an increase in strength.
There may come a point however where you feel absolutely nothing after a workout. No soreness, no fatigue, nothing. This can be used as a sign that you need to change something up in your workouts especially if you’ve been doing the same thing for months.
You can change exercise selection, set and rep scheme and frequency of training among other things. Something as simple as squatting 4 sets of 5 instead of 3 sets of 10 can start the adaptation process all over again.
This process is highly individual. Listen to your body and keep things fresh while using soreness and fatigue as indicators of when to do so. Just keep in mind the downfalls of only relying on DOMS. If you’ve reached a plateau in your goals or in the amount of weight you can manage for a given exercise, this is another signal that you’ve been doing the same thing for too long.
To your good health,
1. Kyle L. Flann, Paul C. LaStayo, Donald A. McClain, Mark Hazel, Stan L. Lindstedt. (2011.) Muscle damage and muscle remodeling: no pain, no gain? Journal of Experimental Biology. 214:674-679, doi:10.1242/jeb.050112.