You've probably woken up with DOMS at least once in your life.
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a common side effect of physical activity. The aching and tightness is caused by inflammation accompanying microscopic tears forming in muscle fibers. Generally, the discomfort starts 24 to 48 hours post-workout. The eccentric – or lengthening – portion of a movement is said to be the biggest contributor to DOMS.
A common belief among fitness aficionados is that if DOMS isn't experienced in whichever muscle groups were trained, the workout was essentially a waste.
But is DOMS really a litmus test to gauge progress?
Not necessarily, according to Marshall Roy, owner of RISE Gym in King of Prussia.
"Soreness is not a worthwhile goal in and of itself," Roy said. "The question is, did that workout make you better?"
However, DOMS can be a useful tool during training.
Where tenderness is felt is important. This can yield clues to whether you're performing an exercise properly. In the days following heavy squats, if the quads and glutes are the most sensitive muscle groups, that's a good indication the movement was performed properly. If, after heavy squats, the lower back is feeling the brunt of the workout, there's a good chance your form needs to be corrected.
On the flipside, Roy said, "If you never, ever, ever get sore, then I would have to question whether or not you're training hard enough. If you are constantly a ball of soreness, then I would have to question whether or not your training is inappropriately hard. Sometimes you'll get sore and sometimes you won't, and as long as it's not too far on either extreme, you're probably doing the right thing."
Thankfully, there are ways to alleviate the discomfort associated with DOMS.
"If you do get sore, don't take that as an opportunity to sit on the couch all day. If you feel sore, be proactive. Get out in front of it," Roy said.
He recommends doing the same movement that caused soreness in the first place.
For example, if bench pressing led to DOMS, doing pushups and/or gentle stretching will flush the muscles with blood, oxygen and the nutrients necessary to speed along recovery.
But, if you'd like to try and avoid DOMS altogether, there are some recommendations for that as well.
First, spend at least five to 10 minutes thoroughly warming up before any strength training. Doing so will allow joints to become more limber and mobile before taking on a heavy load. You should break a sweat doing this.
Next, don't take exercises to failure. Stopping sets a few reps shy of failure will decrease the amount of metabolic stress that accumulates in muscle tissue.
"If you do that,'' he said, "you will probably avoid the kind of soreness that makes you cringe to sit down on the toilet."