No pain, no gain: Are DOMS a myth?

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DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness, refers to the aching muscles you feel a day or two after exercise. They’re often seen as a sign that you’ve had a good workout and are getting stronger – but is that actually a myth? We ask the experts if pain does always equal gain…

Harry Aitken, Sport Scientist & Master Trainer for Auster Fitness

When you work out, you cause damage and micro-tears to some of the muscle fibres. Your body then breaks down protein you eat into amino acids and repairs the damaged fibres to be bigger and stronger than before. The body uses these natural protective methods to stop yourself causing catastrophic damage to the muscles while this repair and recovery process is occurring. This occurs as a part of DOMS, where the muscles are acutely inflamed and hypersensitive, meaning the muscle is tight and painful to move.

DOMS affect everyone, but it hits beginners the hardest. The more you train, the faster you will recover and the more used to DOMS your body will become. If you integrate new exercises into your routine, this will also ‘shock’ the muscles and help contribute to increased muscular damage, and therefore, DOMS. Seasoned lifters will train extremely hard, but often won’t feel too sore the next day, whereas a beginner may do what they think is a light leg session and won’t be able to walk properly for a week.

DOMS are an indicator of muscular damage but not necessarily how hard you worked. You can put in a lot of work but not tear many fibres, merely fatigue them. A bodybuilder is aiming to tear as many muscle fibres as possible each session, so they grow back bigger and stronger, because their goal is to be as big as possible. They would see DOMS as an indicator of a good session, whereas if you’re just trying to stay in decent shape and you have a fantastic HIIT class that made you burn lots of calories but you don’t feel sore the next day, that doesn’t mean it was a bad session. Instead it more likely means that you are getting fitter and stronger.

One thing to remember with DOMS – nutrition is key. If you are training hard, your body needs significantly more protein to help recovery, and carbs to refill the energy sources within the muscles too. If you don’t feel you are recovering fast enough, try upping your protein intake.When you have DOMS, it’s okay to train different muscle groups, but as a general rule you shouldn’t really train the same muscles that are sore. The DOMS indicates the muscles haven’t fully recovered, so you could potentially cause injury if you were to train these muscles again.

Scott Laidler, personal trainer and host of Healthy Ambition podcast

There is certainly a case to be made for the feeling you get when your muscles ache after a workout to imply progress is being made. It’s an indication that micro-damage has been done to your body and all things being equal, you should respond with greater size and strength capabilities when you next do something equally strenuous again.

Whilst DOMS do represent that you’ve done a big workout, there are scenarios where you could do the same workout and not experience them. This will be due to one of two things: an indication that your body has adapted and you are no longer ‘over-reaching’ and creating the pre-requisite amount of muscular damage to experience the DOMS, or that you are executing the ‘minimum effective dose’ of stimulus in order to get the results you seek without the accompanying damage and pain. Training techniques like HST (hypertrophy-specific-training) work well with this principle and are perfect for those looking to make considerable size and strength gains without experiencing debilitating DOMS, freeing you up to partake in plenty of other activities.

To sum up…

DOMS themselves aren’t a myth. If you have DOMS, don’t panic – embrace the ache, but remember not to overtrain the muscle. However, it’s absolutely a myth that DOMS is the only indicator of an effective workout. If you’re not sore the next day that doesn’t mean you’re not making progress.

By Charlotte

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