By Geoff Rand

We’ve all experienced soreness after a workout.  Some degree of soreness is normal after a WOD, and I’d say normal is about a 3-4 on the above pain scale.  It’s enough to feel like you did something, but it’s no big deal and by tomorrow’s WOD, you’re close to being over it.

But have you ever felt really sore?  I’m talking like in the 7-9, can't-stop-crying to mauled-by-ninjas range.  This is beyond what you normally feel after a WOD.  This type of soreness might not hit you until 24 hours after a workout; it is debilitating and might last a whole week.  It’s bad, like I need help sitting down on the toilet or need help dressing myself bad.  If strangers keep coming up to you asking, “Are you ok?”, that’s the feeling I’m talking about.  If you’ve ever felt like that, you have likely experienced DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness).

Before we dive into this topic, I should say that DOMS isn’t fully understood.  Even though the concept was first referenced in 1902, there are still conflicting theories as to why and how it develops.  Many studies have been done to try to answer some of the questions surrounding DOMS, but a lot of what we know is derived from blood tests pre and post-workout.  Researchers see what changes have occurred in the blood and then try to figure out what caused that result.  It’s just not the ideal situation.  There are also many variables that could factor into development of DOMS.   Short of cutting into the muscle and watching it work with a microscope, which really isn’t practical given an exercising subject in motion, we may have to wait for some nano-technological breakthrough before we can really begin to understand DOMS.

Why do some workouts cause light soreness and others totally crush you?  Again, we don’t fully know.  It’s likely a combination of several factors.  We do know some factors that are likely to cause DOMS, but know that just because that bus ran you over on WOD X doesn’t mean you’ll feel the same when you repeat it in a month or two.  We’ll get into why that is the case, but first we need to understand the three types of muscle contractions.

In concentric muscle contractions, the muscle produces movement by shortening its length.  An example would be the upward movement of a bicep curl or the top of a bench press, squat or pull up.

In eccentric (pronounced ek-sentrik) muscle contractions, movement is produced as the muscle is lengthening.  Lowering the dumbbell in a curl is the eccentric portion of the movement.  Another way to think of eccentric contractions is to think of them as the negative phase, like lowering down from a pull up or squat.

In isometric muscle contractions, the muscle length does not change under load and there is no movement.  It remains static.  Holding a dumbbell with a 90-degree bend in the elbow parallel to the ground would be an example of an isometric muscle contraction.  Wall sits or holding a pushup at halfway down would be other examples of isometric muscle contractions.

While it is impossible to predict every time it will occur, it is known that DOMS develops in muscles that are worked in the eccentric phase.  Concentric and isometric contractions seem to not be developers of DOMS.  If you look deeper, this makes sense.  When we perform a concentric contraction, gravity is the damper that counters the movement when we reach the top or upper limit of the exercise.  There is no extra strain placed on the muscle to slow the movement.  But, when we lower into the negative eccentric phase, as in a squat, the muscles are acting like brakes, controlling not only the force of the weight as you lower it, but transitioning like a spring, to push the weight back up.  Thrusters are a great example of this type of dynamic force.  It is this elastic recoil energy that places great stress on the muscles as they stretch and lengthen in eccentric contraction, and could very well be why DOMS develops here instead of in muscles working in concentric or isometric contraction.

Any time you exercise, you are creating microscopic tears in your muscle tissues.  When this micro-trauma heals, the muscle grows and is able to do more work.  Soreness is a natural effect of the healing process.  This damage and repair cycle is the normal functioning of muscle growth.  You can check out what’s going on inside your muscle tissues in this video.

At this point you might be wondering if DOMS is good or bad and if more pain equals more gain.  I should stress that we’re talking about soreness here, not pain from injury.  They are two very different things.  The soreness from DOMS will go away, usually in a few days to a week, and there are some ways you can help it along that we’ll talk about in a moment.  While it would be foolish to hit the same muscle group at the same intensity on back-to-back days without allowing it to recover, DOMS does not cause any lasting damage, and once healed, the affected muscles have been shown to be more resistant to fatigue, able to do more work, and have adapted to be more resistant to developing DOMS in future workouts (called the repeated-bout effect).  However, muscles that don’t develop DOMS after being worked also develop increased fatigue resistance and work capacity, so you don't need to feel wrecked after every workout for progress to be made.

DOMS is neither good nor bad.  You don’t need to feel the intense soreness of DOMS after a workout for the exercise to be effective, and more pain isn’t an indication you will see more gains.  It is just a sign that you found an area of weakness.

How do you get DOMS?

Here are some factors that contribute to the development of DOMS and some strategies to mitigate them:

1.  Lack of adequate sleep and poor nutrition or hydration can contribute to development of DOMS—this fix is simple, get enough sleep, allow yourself adequate recovery periods, and eat well and stay hydrated.

2.  DOMS is more likely to develop after performing an exercise you are unaccustomed to doing or one you haven’t done in awhile or at an intensity or duration you’re not used to.  The fix for this is to take it easy on those types of movements.  This is why coaches often prescribe half the reps, much lighter weight, or alternate movements for new members.  If you know you haven’t done the exercise in awhile, go a bit lighter now and increase the weight next time.

3.  There may be genetic factors in play that could make one person more likely to develop DOMS than another.  We just don’t know.  Your best bet is to learn what exercises are likely to end up causing DOMS for you personally, and know what to do to speed up the recovery once the soreness develops.  I know for me when that 150 kettlbell wallballs for time WOD pops up, it's going to be a rough week.

Crystal in eccentric muscle contraction.

Crystal in eccentric muscle contraction.

What to do when you get DOMS

As I’ve covered in previous articles, action almost always beats inaction when it comes to recovery.  DOMS is no different.  You want to increase blood flow to the affected muscles.  You can do this by jumping on a rower, doing sprints, or other exercises depending on the area of soreness.  Yes, it will eventually resolve on its own, but getting off your sore butt and doing something to aid the healing process will speed the recovery and shorten the duration of the pain.  Remember that taking NSAIDs like Ibuprofen or applying ice to sore muscles actually impedes the healing process, so don’t employ those treatments.

Foam rolling, rolling out with lacrosse or golf balls, application of heating pads, or getting a massage or doing yoga will also assist in improving mobility and blood flow to the area, and will speed recovery.

If you work a desk job or sit in a car all day and have DOMS, get up and move around.  Take a walk during lunch or walk up and down the stairs.  Do something to keep the blood flowing and help that lymphatic fluid to drain.

If you’re serious about becoming faster, stronger, and overall just a better you, you likely will have some run ins with DOMS.  One of the great benefits of CrossFit is that our constantly varied programming helps to make sure all parts of the body get worked in multiple ways.  It’s up to you to get in the Box often enough to make sure you don’t become unaccustomed to any movements and help to keep those packs of mauling ninjas away.