Mystery of DOMS
about all of us at one time or another has felt sore the day or so after a
workout. If you’re like most individuals, you probably blew it off, rested a
little and chalked it up to an overly aggressive workout, or the buildup of lactic
acid in the muscles. Because so many misconceptions exist about this phenomenon,
I thought you might like to hear the real story—at least as much as is known so
feeling of pain, stiffness or discomfort in muscles that occurs a day or so
after a workout is known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness and is abbreviated as
DOMS. While DOMS has been under scientific scrutiny since at least 1902, at the
present time, the actual biological process behind it remains a mystery. What
is known is that DOMS is a complex process, and every piece of the puzzle
uncovered, makes it all the more mysterious. Many theories exist to explain the
occurrence of DOMS. Some of the more plausible theories include:
The torn tissue theory which advocates
that microscopic tears in the muscles are the cause of DOMS.
tissue theory subscribes to the
idea that damage to the connective tissue attached to muscle is the cause of
The Inflammation theory states that the pain felt during DOMS is simply a
by-product of our bodies attempt to fix
the damage that has been caused by a workout.
each of these theories, and others which I have not discussed, do explain some
of the aspects of DOMS, no theory fully explains the entire process. The
following is a quick run down of what we currently know about DOMS.
1. DOMS-related pain usually occurs within the first
24 to 72 hours following exercise. Specifically, DOMS usually occurs following
overly difficult exercise or any activity that we are not used to. For example,
you could perform every exercise in your gym but if it snowed tonight and you
had to shovel your pavement, you would probably experience DOMS because there
isn’t an exercise in your gym that mimics shoveling the snow.
2. Of the three types of muscle in our bodies, heart
muscle, smooth muscle (which lines our blood vessels) and skeletal muscle (which
is attached to our skeletons, such as biceps and triceps muscle), DOMS effects only skeletal muscle.
3. DOMS is not
caused by lactic acid buildup in the muscle. This is the myth that refuses to
die. Within one hour after exercise, most, if not all, of the lactic acid
produced is removed and recycled. This misconception of lactic acid causing
DOMS probably became started because lactic acid is in fact produced in the
muscles during intense exercise and does cause muscles to fatigue. The key point to remember is that muscle fatigue and DOMS
are two different processes.
4. DOMS does not result in any long term damage to
muscle. This makes sense because if it did, we would expect to see great
declines in the abilities of professional athletes during the course of their
careers. Interestingly, DOMS-related pain is not felt at rest. In other words,
if you are sitting quietly reading these words, you shouldn’t experience DOMS
until you start to move. This is one way you can discriminate between DOMS and
more severe injuries to the body, which will be painful at rest.
5. Studies show that the vast majority of pain
associated with DOMS is caused by eccentric muscle actions, in which the muscle
fibers are lengthened as force is applied to them. Eccentric muscle actions (or
negatives as they are sometimes
called in the gym) occur, when you lower a weight, such as during the
descending phase of a squat or an biceps curl.
you prevent DOMS?
- Start slowly. Starting an exercise program slowly is your best defense against
DOMS. For example, if you performed one set of a chest press at a light
weight—say, 12-15 repetitions— you would feel much less DOMS 24-72 hours
later than if you had performed 3 sets of 12-15 reps. Sometimes performing
the same exercise that caused the DOMS—but at a lower intensity— is also
effective at reducing DOMS-related pain
- Vitamin C. Some people take vitamin C to reduce DOMS pain. Since vitamin C is
needed to make connective tissue and since there is damage to connective
tissue in DOMS, in theory this makes sense. In fact, at least one study
did find that vitamin C could alleviate DOMS. However this study is almost
50 years old and has been criticized by other researchers because of flaws
in the study design. If you are going to experiment with vitamin C I
suggest using less than 250 mg. Some evidence suggests that humans may be
unable to absorb more than 250 mg of vitamin C at a time. Secondly, some
people have a genetic condition called iron
overload disease in which their
bodies store large amounts of iron. Too much iron can cause organ failure
and death. Because vitamin C greatly enhances absorption of iron, I
personally feel everyone should have their iron levels checked before
using vitamin C supplements.
- Massage. In my opinion this is a fuzzy area. I have seen research that
finds that massage may improve DOMS and other research that indicates that
it does not. Because there are many different types of massage, this may
be the reason behind the conflicting findings. One thing is certain,
massage feels good and when I become rich I intend to get a massage
everyday – DOMS or no DOMS!
- Stretching. While a staple of many exercise programs, some studies find that
stretching can actually cause DOMS if you are not used to stretching! The
bottom line on stretching is if you want to do it great. Just do it after
your workout when your muscles are warmer—and start out slowly to reduce
DOMS from rearing its ugly head.
That’s it for now. I hope I've been able
to answer all of your DOMS-related questions. As always, feel free to email me about
this or or any other exercise or nutrition related question you may have.
Joe Cannon, MS, CSCS, is an exercise physiologist, author
and lecturer in the suburbs of Pennsylvania. He certifies fitness professionals
via AAAI/ ISMA at both local and national levels. He is the author of Nutrition
Essentials: A Guidebook for the Fitness
Professional. He can be reached via email at JoeCannonMSCSCS hotmail or at
his web site www.joe-cannon.com