No one said it better than Arnold Schwarzenegger: “No pain, no gain.”
Muscle soreness is commonly associated with exercise effectiveness. In other words, unless it is painful to sit on a toilet after a lower-body workout or grab something off the top shelf following an upper-body workout, you did not work hard enough.
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However, soreness (or lack thereof) does not indicate a good or bad workout.
It is not uncommon to feel sore the next day or two after a workout, especially if the exercise routine is new.
This is known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which typically develops 12 to 24 hours after the workout is performed and can produce the greatest pain between 24 and 72 hours after exercise.
Soreness is a sign that your body is adapting to the stresses imposed by the exercises, so you will be better equipped to perform them again.
The severity of soreness tends to differ among individuals and depends on the types of forces placed on the muscle, training status of the person, and even genetics.
What Causes DOMS?
A common misconception about DOMS is that it is caused by lactate or, as it is commonly called, lactic acid buildup. But research shows that is not the case.
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The exact cause of DOMS is not clearly understood. But, most research suggests it is related to muscle cell damage and an increase in various metabolites in the muscle cell area.
The type of muscle contraction is a key factor in the development of DOMS.
When a muscle lengthens against a load—as during the lowering phase of a Bicep Curl exercise—the muscle contraction is eccentric. These eccentric contractions result in more muscle cell damage than concentric contractions, which occurs when the muscle shortens during a contraction against a load.
Soreness Is Not a Sign of Muscle Growth
Several people pride themselves on feeling sore the day following a hard workout as a sign of muscle growth. They assume that the soreness is a sign that muscle damage took place and that therefore the muscle will repair itself and grow bigger.
However, research shows that muscle damage is not always needed for muscle growth, and muscle soreness does not always indicate muscle damage.
Theoretically, if muscle damage did indicate muscle growth, research also shows you cannot use muscle soreness as a reliable indicator of how much muscle damage occurred.
Thus, just because your muscles are sore does not mean they are growing. Conversely, just because your muscles are not sore does not mean they are not growing.
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Ways to Treat Muscle Soreness
The easiest way to reduce the severity of DOMS is to progress slowly in a new program. This gives your muscles time to adapt to the stresses and minimize the symptoms. Even then, it is unlikely you can avoid muscle soreness altogether.
Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen can help, but they may also slow the ability of the muscle to repair itself.
You may also notice that lightly exercising your sore muscles can reduce the severity of DOMS. Protein supplements or protein-containing foods have also been shown to help.