DOMS — Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness — is the physiological phenomenon where your muscles experience soreness 1–3 days (sometimes longer) after a workout, or when you’ve done some physically strenuous kind of activity.
Now, I don’t know about you, but for a long time I’ve heard professional trainers, bodybuilders, and athletes talk about DOMS as an indicator that you did a good workout.
“If you’re sore, then you know you did something right.”
But that’s not why we get DOMS at all. DOMS happen mainly because of eccentric exercises — the part of the movement that lengthens/stretches a certain muscle — which causes something called microtrauma, which is basically when tiny parts of muscle fibres are torn, which causes inflammation in the muscle. The inflammation triggers your pain receptors (called nociceptors) to act out, and voila: you feel sore.
The same microtrauma is necessary for your muscles to adapt to the stress you put on it. If you work out regularly, you’ve probably noticed that you don’t get as sore as you did when you first started. That’s because your muscles have gotten used to the stress from the exercises you do.
However, that doesn’t mean you’re making less progress. Soreness has very little to do with progress. DOMS are just what happens when you do something your muscles aren’t used to. It’s that simple. Pain doesn’t mean gain, and sometimes it can actually lead to muscle loss if you end up overtraining.
“But how come I feel sore sometimes even when I’ve been exercising for ages?”
That comes down to a few things. Everyone is different at the end of the day, and you might get sore more than others, or you might never ever get sore. It’s also likely that during your workout you did something that your muscles weren’t quite used to.
“So how do I know if I’ve done a good workout then?”
Good question. What are your goals exactly? Are you trying to build muscle, or are you trying to lose fat (don’t say both, you can’t lose weight and gain it at the same time)?
The key to fat loss is eating less calories than you need to maintain your body weight; while the key to gaining muscle is to eat more calories than you need to maintain your body weight.
Be clear about what your goals are, because you can do the most intense, DOMS-inducing workout ever, but if you’re not eating right barely anything will happen. Believe me, I learned that the hard way. I spent a good year doing the absolute most in the gym, intentionally trying to make myself sore every time. But I wasn’t eating enough, so I made zero gains.
Tracking your progress is not a simple task. There is no magic trick to tell if that one workout was effective. Soreness means nothing in the grand scheme of things. So here are a couple of simple tips to tell whether your workouts are effective:
1. Are you getting stronger/faster/more durable? This means being able to do slightly more than you did last time for the same exercise. Strength or speed or endurance don’t improve instantly, but it will increase gradually, so long as you increase the stress/load.
2. Are you building muscle/losing fat? Don’t focus on soreness. Use your eyes to judge if you’re getting bigger, or getting smaller. Use a weighing scale, and make sure you’re tracking your progress over a long period of time too. Every day is pointless. Weigh yourself and/or take progress pictures every week or two.