Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a sensation of myth and legend to anyone who works out. I am sure everyone has a tale of debilitating DOMS from when they first started training, did an especially brutal leg workout or went back to the Gym after a lengthy layoff.
I remember one of my first squat workouts left me unable to function as a human being and perform simple, everyday tasks, like sit on the toilet.
To many people, working out is all about chasing this soreness. It's commonly believed, among lifters, that DOMS is the best indicator of growth and that the more DOMS one has following a workout, the more growth they will get. But is this correct? Or has this pursuit been taking us down the wrong path?
What Is DOMS?
For those that don't know, or need a refresher, DOMS refers to the muscle soreness one experiences anywhere from as early as 8 hours after a workout, and tend's to peak around the 36 to 48-hour mark (but this can vary depending on the individual).
Beginner trainers tend to experience DOMS more frequently and more severely, but this effect diminishes once they become more accustomed to training. I am sure anyone who has ever done anything resembling a decent resistance workout will know what DOMS feels like.
What Causes DOMS?
While it's pretty evident what DOMS is and what it feels like, it is less apparent what causes it. It was commonly believed; that DOMS was caused by a build-up of lactic acid. Although now, this theory has been widely dismissed.
In a recent article published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal, Brad Schoenfield and Bret Contreras shed some light on what may be the cause:
''Although the exact mechanisms are not well understood, DOMS appears to be a product of inflammation caused by microscopic tears in the connective tissue elements..''
Simply put, it seems DOMS is caused by a form of 'muscle damage' and the bodies inflammatory response to this damage. It has also been shown that while many types of exercise can cause DOMS, exercise with a focus on the eccentric phase induces it to a greater degree.
So Does More DOMS, Mean More Growth?
It may be intuitive for some to read the above and think ''Well more muscle damage should equal more growth, right?''. The answer to this is, no. Muscle damage and DOMS may play a small part in muscle growth, but they by no means should be used as a primary gauge of growth following a workout.
To give a few real world examples as to why this may be, let's take running marathons and cycling for example. These activities can cause severe DOMS and yet, I am sure no one associates running a marathon or riding long distances with muscle growth. In fact, generally, the opposite is true.
On a purely anecdotal level, let's also look at some examples of why using the amount of DOMS you get as an indicator of growth might not be the best approach:
The more frequent someone trains, training a body part multiple times per week, the more DOMS seems to diminish. And yet, research indicates that training more frequently leads to better growth. If DOMS did equal more growth, you would expect to see people training more often, experiencing more DOMS. But that's simply not the case.
DOMS is also reported to be more prevalent after training certain muscle groups, than others. For example, training legs tends to produce more DOMS than training shoulders. Despite this, shoulders seem to grow just fine.
While there may be some basis that DOMS can cause growth, it should not be used as the primary gauge to determine how much you will grow. Building muscle requires multiple things and being debilitatingly sore a few days after you train is not one of them. In fact, debilitating soreness is probably a sign you won't grow. To quote Bret and Brad again, from their article I mentioned previously:
''high levels of soreness should be regarded as detrimental as it is a sign that the lifter has exceeded the capacity for the muscle to efficiently repair itself.''
On top of this, they also mention experiencing high levels of soreness also decreases your motivation to train and impedes your performance when you train, which aren't things we want.
So in conclusion, if you want to grow muscle, focus on the things that grow muscle like a good progressive resistance training program and have a diet that facilitates this. Don't spend your whole training life chasing DOMS, because it's taking you down the wrong path if your goal is to grow more muscle. More DOMS, does not mean that you will grow more.