Avoid Pain and Still Gain

Have you ever had intense muscle soreness a day or two after a workout that makes it hard to walk up stairs or lift your arms? That phenomenon is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). Some believe it’s the best sign of a good workout and necessary to make progress, but that isn’t true. In fact, it’s more likely to be a hindrance. You can get stronger, leaner, and healthier without having to walk like a zombie for two days after every workout.

DOMS usually shows up 12-48 hours after exercise, depending on how severe the workout was. There are several proposed explanations for it, but the most common one is microscopic damage to muscle cells associated with heavy or repetitive eccentric muscle action. Eccentric action is when muscles resist or decelerate a weight. It can also come from unfamiliar activity, like changing from squats to lunges for the first time. The way the muscles work in the lunge is different enough to trigger DOMS.

DOMS Is Not A Positive

Soreness is often viewed as positive feedback from exercise, but that’s misguided. DOMS can limit strength and range of motion, and the discomfort will probably hamper your next 2-3 workouts. It usually takes 5-7 days to fade completely, and it is not a necessary part of getting stronger. The best case scenario is to avoid DOMS while building strength and fitness.

Now, that doesn’t mean never challenging yourself. Improving strength requires progressively lifting more weight and performing more demanding exercises over time. Post workout soreness is occasionally unavoidable, but it shouldn’t be a normal occurrence. When progressing to heavier weights or to a new exercise, keep in mind a few of guidelines.

  • When increasing weight on a given exercise, add about 5%. Sometimes weight lifting equipment doesn’t allow that small of an increase, so make the smallest increase possible.
  • After increasing weight, decrease repetitions to gradually adapt to the new challenge, particularly when forced to make more than a 5% weight increase. If you typically do 10 repetitions per set of an exercise, try dropping down to 6 repetitions and progressively work back up to 10 reps with the new weight over the course of multiple workouts.
  • When moving to a more challenging exercise, decrease repetitions to allow for gradual adaptation, just like when moving up in weights.

When you do get the occasional case of DOMS, research suggests that massage or foam rolling will alleviate it somewhat. Light exercise will also help, but keep the intensity very low. Body-weight movements or even simply walking should help, but you will really just need time to recover and regenerate. Ultimately, exercise shouldn’t leave you in pain. Train smart and strategically and avoid unnecessary misery.

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Michael Bento is an Advanced Trainer at the Clubs at Charles River Park. He holds a Masters degree in Human Movement and is certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine as a Corrective Exercise Specialist and Performance Enhancement Specialist.

One Response to “Avoid Pain and Still Gain”

  1. Mimi says:

    Squats!!!

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