You notice a little stiffness in your walk when you wake up the day after working out. You notice the swelling.
Your calves are tender to your touch. As the day goes on, it feels worse. You’re experiencing DOMS or delayed onset muscle soreness.
You’re probably wondering it’s a good sign or a bad one. Let’s look at the physiology of what’s happening.
What Is DOMS?
Your workout has caused damage to your muscle fibers and red blood cells.
When that happens, they send out distress signals in the form of chemicals like histamine and bradykinin.
The latter causes your blood vessels to dilate which brings more fluids into the area. That’s what causes the swelling.
Remember that your body views damaged cells as something it needs to get rid of which is why white blood cells come to the job.
They’ll handle both the debris and any bacteria that may be present.
You may also see redness or feel warmth where it feels sore. That’s because of the increase in blood flow and your body’s way to speed up the healing process.
The inflammatory response consists of several coordinated defense mechanisms to repair the damage quickly. The intensity of your symptoms will vary with the degree of severity.
What Causes DOMS?
It’s unlikely that you can get away with never experiencing some muscle soreness after exercise—especially if it’s been awhile since you last visited the gym.
That’s why you hear the advice to start slow. Your body needs time to adapt to the new activity. The achiness you’re feeling is a sign of that adjustment your body is making.
Certain activities are more likely to cause DOMS. It’s a matter of how you work your muscles.
There are two types of contractions, isometric and isotonic. The former occurs when you push against something like doing push against something.
There is no movement per se. The latter is when something happens like bending your knee or flexing your elbow.
If your muscle contracts, it is a concentric contraction. If it lengthens as it contracts, then it is an eccentric contraction.
That is the one most likely to give you trouble because it puts a greater strain on your body. That can lead to a higher risk of damage.
Activities that cause you to move this way include:
- Walking or running downhill
- Jumping or hopping
- Strength training
DOMS also happens if you start a new type of activity or when you’re just starting out with exercise.
It’s not necessarily a sign of a good workout but rather an indication that you did something.
Even elite athletes can experience it for the same reasons. Fitness doesn’t prevent it.
Is DOMS a Good Thing?
DOMS tells you that your body is responding normally to cell damage. You know that your workout took a toil, and now, you’re paying the price. In that sense, it’s a positive sign.
The best thing you can do is to let time take over the healing process. That means taking it easy for the next three to five days as your body makes the necessary repairs.
The process of healing results in larger, tougher muscle fibers. That’s why you start to see that sculpted look.
And the good news is that you’ll be stronger the next time with the added protective effect. When you work out regularly, you’ll continue this positive cycle of repair and strengthening.
When Is Muscle Soreness Bad?
Most times, your discomfort will abate on its own.
You can ice the area a few times a day and take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin or ibuprofen to get you through the worst of it.
But don’t rely on them too long or you’ll delay the healing process. You should see your doctor if the pain is severe and interferes with normal activity.
Muscle soreness during your workouts is another story. If you experience acute pain while exercising, stop what you’re doing.
The workout may be too strenuous for your present state of fitness. You may have bad form. In any case, discontinuing your activity will help prevent more serious damage.
Pain is your body’s defense mechanism that’s telling you that you’re overdoing it. If you notice it, pay attention.
Your body is trying to warn you about something serious. In that sense, muscle soreness is good because it’ll encourage you to stop before it’s too late.
Is No Pain, No Gain True?
It’s a common belief that you have to exercise to the point of pain for it to mean anything. It’s a myth that has taken hold and won’t go away.
Sure, you can expect some soreness when you first start an exercise program. That’s normal.
But continued pain means something is wrong. You may be pushing yourself too hard, too quickly.
Building muscle is a slow process that can take a few weeks before you see visible results. But you’ll notice a marked difference in strength if you go this route.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise each week.
Do one set of 12 repetitions to the point of muscle fatigue. That’s not the same as pain. It’s a measure of how hard it is to lift a weight.
When you can do that, add a little more to continue building strength.
Muscle soreness after a workout is a normal response to the damage and chemical release that occur after exercising.
It’s an indication of immune system function rather than a gauge of a good workout.
The best sign is the sculpted look and added strength you’ll experience from taking charge of your physical health.