Is Muscle Soreness A Sign Of Hypertrophy?

Muscular man measuring biceps

Feeling muscle soreness a few days after having a seemingly intense workout session, is it really a clear-cut sign of muscle size growth? Enter: delayed onset muscle soreness–DOMS–what is it and what does it really mean?

The soreness you experience for a few days, a few days after a workout, is called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and kicks in from 24 to 72 hours after a strenuous physical activity and can last for a few days. The external stimulant for this sensation is physical activity that is “foreign” to your muscles, as in new ways the muscles had to be worked.

A Sign Of Muscle Adaptation

When feeling sore, what it really means is that you’ve worked your muscles in a new way, in a way the muscles have not encountered before or it’s been a long time since. In a new way as in a slightly different variation of an exercise, which ultimately works that specific muscle in an unfamiliar way. It basically catches the muscle with its pants down.

Take the following example: doing flat bench presses all the time, then deciding to do incline or decline bench presses as well. There’s a damn good chance you’ll feel that nice soreness the next days! Because the chest muscles are worked in slightly different areas in all 3 variations of the exercise.

Another variable that contributes to soreness is the intensity of a workout, suddenly jump 10 kilos in your bicep curls and soreness is sure to come, since it’s a new level of stress the muscle needs to cope with.

No Soreness Doesn’t Mean No Progress

Some people have rarely experienced muscle soreness but they are not your average Joe. It’s something that yet again varies from person to person. Some people feel soreness after working their calves, while others do not.

While feeling sore after a good workout IS a sign that muscle is undergoing some kind of process, it doesn’t necessarily mean hypertrophy is taking place. Take for example running, after a year of doing none, you go and jog until you’re blue in the face. You’ll most likely be sore after that, because your leg muscles have already forgot what running is. It doesn’t mean though, that muscle is growing in size, it can actually mean that it’s repairing and becoming stronger.

One thing’s for sure, it means your muscles will be back stronger so the next time you put the exact strain that caused the DOMS, there will be none since your body is now accustomed to such a strain, it no longer will take the muscles by surprise.

Not being sore basically means you’re used to the level of strain and to that specific angle of movement (take the 3 bench press variations for example — they work your chest in different ways). It by no means means (haha) that the workout was inefficient. Lack of soreness is not lack of progress, lack of progress is lack of progress, if you know what I mean.

Don’t Mistake Injury For DOMS

They are different, although sometimes may give off the impression they are the same. Injury / muscle strain pain is sharp, thunderbolt-like and may last for a very long time if you neglect it and workout “on top of it”. Pain is your body’s signal to leave it be, while it’s healing.

How can you know if it’s injury you’re dealing with and not your regular DOMS? Well first of all, injury pain is acute, like mentioned above, it’s such that will render the use of that muscle nearly unfeasible due to the amount of pain. Second of all, if pain is not anything of unusual compared to DOMS, you can apply the law of symmetry to find out if it’s an injury in its initial phase: if one side of a muscle group (one bicep, one shoulder, one quadricep, etc…) is aching while the other is not, it’s a very good sign that an injury it is. Unless you’re a buffoon and been training only one side of your body and it’s just DOMS.

Unlike muscle injury, DOMS is natural and won’t contribute to an injury if physical activity is forced on the affected muscles in moderation. What it means that you can still do some physical activity, relative to the amount of soreness you experience, without it worsening the situation to a state of tr–sorry injury.

What Causes DOMS

While the trigger to DOMS is the execution of eccentric contractions, as in lengthening of the muscle while forcefully contracting (classic example: when you lower the dumbbell doing good old bicep curls), the inner workings that bring to the sensation of muscle soreness are still unknown. As for other movements, holding weight statically and lifting the weight up (concentric contractions) cause little to no soreness.

Inner Workings That Cause DOMS: Theories

Actually, it’s not that interesting and shouldn’t be of concern to a bodybuilder as long as one knows that DOMS appear after unfamiliar exercises and/or higher intensities of a workout and the actual movements that start the “chain reaction” are eccentric contractions, or in other words lowering-of-the-weight part of an exercise. But for the sake of completeness I’ll list what are some hypotheses on the inner processes that bring you the soreness.

  • Lactic acid buildup (metabolic waste in the muscle) which apparently is not the case, since it dissipates within a matter of an hour post workout. DOMS kick in much later, as mentioned before, from 1 to 2 days after the soreness inducing workout. The lactic acid buildup in the muscle has been the believed reason for soreness for quite some time, until proved otherwise by research.
    Proved false.
  • Microscopic tearing in the muscle cells that eventually brings to a process of inflammation that causes the sensation of soreness. This is caused by introducing new exercises and/or intensity of the workout.
    Believed to be true.

DOMS Prevention

Although there’s no scientific proof for any of the following treatments actually working for everyone, you can still give it a shot, since it’s been practiced before and been said to alleviate the pain at least sometimes. Try experimenting to see what works for you. DOMS treatments, as well as its exact causes, are questionable and further research is required to establish stronger conclusions.

  • Warming up
    Performing “warm-up” sets with light weight before doing the actual exercise has been shown to be an effective way to combat the chances of DOMS kicking in or at least its severity. What you achieve by doing “dummy” sets is getting your muscles’ temperature up, effectively bringing them to a more flexible and better-performing state, hence less injury-prone. An example dummy set would be benching just the barbell for a Benchpress exercise, for about 20 repetitions and then moving on to the “real” sets with “real” weight.
  • Gradual advance
    Simply take it easy with the weight and intensities. If soreness is really something you’d prefer to eliminate as much as possible and not simply wait it out, then go for gradual upping in all aspects of a workout — be it weight, sets, reps or number of exercises in a program.

DOMS Treatment

Some say it helped them alleviate the soreness, while some say it did not. Research done on the following methods bore inconsistent results.  Give it a chance if you really are that impatient to wait it out or your lifestyle is severely affected by soreness.

  • Stretching
    Stretching was long believed to be the ultimate DOMS prevention tactic, but according to recent studies it is actually not… On the contrary, overdoing them stretches may backfire and cause… DOMS, the paradox! Try not to force your muscles out of their stretching range too much and for too long. Go for gentle stretches, remember: everything in moderation! Stretching for relieving the morning stiffness when you just wake up and at work when you sit for hours in front of the computer and passively undergo a plastic surgery on the butt into the form of a square… Is just awesome.
  • Medications
    Aspirin, ibuprofen and flurbiprofen are anti-inflammatory medications that may be prescribed to DOMS “suffering” patients. Although DOMS is a result of muscle inflammation due to eccentric contractions, research has shown that these drugs are not as effective as thought. (For DOMS treatment.)
  • Antioxidant supplementation
    Vitamins such as C and E are known to hamper a process (the creation of free radicals) thought to be worsening the inflammation in the muscle. Notwithstanding, research has shown inconclusive results as of its effectiveness for DOMS treatment.
  • Cold bath
    Pretty widespread method, although according to recent research, it bears no alleviating-effect on DOMS. Still, it’s something that brings you some sort of relaxation.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that there’s still controversy about this topic, but the following is clear:

  • DOMS will or will not accompany hypertrophy (muscle growth)
  • Lack of DOMS is not a definitive “no” for muscle growth
  • DOMS is a normal physiological phenomenon
  • Causes and treatments for DOMS are a controversial topic
  • DOMS is a sign of muscle adaptation
  • Advance gradually in all aspects of a workout routine to minimize DOMS
  • It fades away after about 5 days after appearing, give or take a few days relative to the intensity of the “culprit” workout
  • Just treat it as feedback from your body that it is becoming stronger
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Enjoy lifting weights in the gym when not working, reading or working on this site! More fond of the bodybuilding aspect of weightlifting.

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