by Aaron Friday
When you start a weight-training program, you’re going to get sore; sometimes, really sore. As you continue training with weights, you will still get sore from time to time, although much less so and less frequently.
Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), as it is formally called, is caused by the muscle damage we induce by lifting weights – specifically, micro tears in the muscle and connective tissues. These micro tears cause inflammation, which makes our muscles hurt when we use them or press on them. Damage obviously sounds like a bad thing, but in this case, it is exactly what we want as long as it is minor damage that we can recover from in a few days. The process of damage, repair, and supercompensation is how our muscles get stronger, harder, and bigger. They can handle the stress very well, especially with regular training.
This Can’t Possibly Be Normal!
DOMS is totally normal, not just for beginners, but also for experienced trainees who change their exercise routine or dramatically increase the intensity or volume of their routine. How sore you get depends on how much of a shock you subject your body to.
If you are accustomed to swinging a 16kg kettlebell 100 times in a workout, you may get a little sore after using 18kg for the same 100 swings. That’s a 12.5% increase in intensity and workload. However, if you repeat that same 18kg workout three days later, you’ll probably be much less sore or maybe not sore at all.
Contrast the above scenario with a sedentary beginner who does 100 swings with a 12kg kettlebell in her first workout. There is no percentage increase to accurately characterize that advancement. It is a huge shock to her muscles, and she’s going to be really sore for a while.
Try to ease into training and proceed gradually. Our bodies adapt in very small increments over time, and there is no benefit in doing workouts that don’t allow us to recover in a couple of days.
How Long Does It Last?
DOMS usually kicks in the day after a workout and often peaks on the second day. After that, the soreness will start to go away and should be mostly gone after three days. Even more serious DOMS tends to go away after four days. The actual timeline varies by person and is influenced by recovery factors — stay hydrated, eat enough protein, and get enough sleep. Light aerobic activity will push the blood through your muscles (without taxing them) and speed up recovery. For similar reasons, foam rolling is also worth a try. Hot and/or cold baths and showers can make your body feel better, too. With regular training, soreness is typically no big deal – just feedback from your muscles.
Eccentric Movements Cause More Damage
The eccentric (or negative) phase of a movement actually damages muscles more than the concentric (or positive) phase of a movement. This is because the muscles are lengthening while simultaneously being forcefully contracted. Think of a chin-up. The positive phase is when you pull yourself up to the bar, and the negative phase is when you lower yourself back down. We often work the negative phase slowly and deliberately to induce strength gains, which happen via extra muscle damage. Of course, with extra muscle damage comes a higher potential for DOMS.
How Sore is Too Sore?
Muscle soreness that interferes with your life and your subsequent workouts is too much soreness.
If you have minor soreness (i.e., you can tell that you’ve worked your muscles), but you have no weakness, pain, or loss of mobility, you’re totally fine.
If your legs are so sore that it actually hurts to walk up a few stairs, you should avoid heavy leg work until the soreness is gone. Light exercise is still a great idea and will help with recovery. Make sure you get enough water, protein, and rest. This level of soreness is normal after a particularly tough workout.
If you have visible swelling in a muscle, you overdid it. You’ll recover, but it could take an entire week, and you likely won’t even benefit from all the work you did. Read up on general adaptation syndrome and get familiar with the concepts. Your body cannot adapt to acute stresses that are too great. On a general fitness program, we want full recovery in two days.
Finally, if you gave yourself rhabdomyolysis from a kettlebell class and had to be rushed to the hospital, you should make an appointment with a mental health counselor while you’re there. Some of those voices in your head (keep going, it’s just pain) need to be silenced. You should listen to your body and your instructors instead. Incremental improvements combined with not missing workouts is how we all get stronger, leaner, and healthier – not all-out, heroic efforts performed sporadically between injuries.