by Charles Poliquin
Do you ever get super sore from training?
Do you use post-workout soreness as a gauge of your progress?
Despite the pain it causes, many people accept delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) as a valuable indicator of having trained hard and thrashed their muscles. They assume soreness means they are building muscle and getting stronger.
It’s logical, but not necessarily so.
Plus, DOMS makes your muscles feel ill, impairs strength for days, and compromises athletic performance. Whether DOMS is indicative of effective training or not, it’s worthwhile to try to prevent it because along with being painful, it keeps you from training as regularly as you would like, often to the point of diminishing returns.
Other ill effects of DOMS include the following:
• Increased injury risk, particularly in relation to jumping and high force running because DOMS reduces muscle recruitment patterns and the range-of-motion in the joint, decreasing the capacity to efficiently absorb shock.
• Women experiencing DOMS may be at high risk of injury because DOMS causes a greater reduction in anterior cruciate ligament elasticity than men.
• Decreased motivation to train, especially in novice trainees.
• Increased physiological demand of endurance exercise, leading to poorer performance. DOMS compromises performance most when training in high temperatures.
The Myths Of Muscle Pain: I’m Sore; Therefore, I Must Be Gaining Muscle?
Science is murky on what causes DOMS, how it relates to muscle and strength development, and whether it’s an effective gauge of muscle development (as in I’m sore, therefore, I must be gaining muscle). Just like every complicated and incompletely understand phenomenon in exercise physiology, the issue of DOMS is plagued by persistent myths.
Before getting into what does work to prevent DOMS, we need to debunk the myths so as to have some basic facts to start with. Here are a few things we do know about DOMS:
1) Eccentric contractions (when you lengthen the muscle, as in the down motion of a biceps curl or squat) are well known for causing DOMS, compared to concentric contractions.
2) Genetics play a role. The experience of DOMS varies by individual. Some people experience little DOMS, whereas others get very sore, even after years of training.
3) The degree of DOMS appears to vary by the muscle trained, with some muscles almost never getting sore and others getting very sore.
4) The degree of DOMS doesn’t correlate with muscle hypertrophy. There’s no evidence that individuals who don’t get sore after exercise don’t gain as much muscle.
In addition, endurance exercise such as marathon running and long-duration cycling can cause intense DOMS, neither of which is associated with muscle growth.
5) DOMS can be aggravated by stress such as lack of sleep and dehydration.
6) Common “treatments” for DOMS such as massage and ice are largely useless. If they do have any benefit for reducing pain, it is very small and short lived.
That’s not to say that these methods won’t help with recovery—they just won’t help with the soreness that is a component of recovery. Recovery from training encompasses central nervous, metabolic, and muscular factors, which icing and massage can support.
7) Although anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) can reduce muscle pain, they won’t accelerate recovery or restore strength. They have a negative effect on hypertrophy because they inhibit the activation of satellite cell that allow for continued growth. NSAIDs also cause intestinal leakage and systemic inflammation.
8) Static stretching before or after training will not reduce DOMS. Neither will micro-current stimulation nor doing a cardio-based warm-up such as jogging.
9) Other supplements that don’t appear to reduce DOMS include topical arnica, fish oil, and glutamine. This may surprise you because fish oil and glutamine are well known for aiding recovery.
Here’s the deal: Fish oil is anti-inflammatory and will enhance recovery from intense training. It may even reduce muscle pain slightly, but it hasn’t been found in clinical trials to decrease severe DOMS. Anyone who trains hard knows that severe DOMS is, well, severe, which is one reason why many therapies that speed recovery don’t have much effect on DOMS.
Regarding glutamine, the majority of the evidence suggests glutamine supplementation is most effective for those with low glutamine status such as someone with cancer.
That may be because small doses are generally tested (up to 20 grams), whereas anecdotal reports suggest larger doses (up to 80 grams) might be effective for reducing DOMS. If it works for you, have at it.
Despite the many outstanding questions, there’s a boatload of research on what does work to reduce DOMS. Here are some effective treatments for you to try:
#1: Take Caffeine to Reduce DOMS
Caffeine is well known for its enormous benefits on endurance and strength training performance. Caffeine’s ability to reduce DOMS is less known, but it appears to be one of the most effective ways of curing sick muscles.
A recent study had trained men take 5 mg/kg of bodyweight of caffeine and then do a muscle-damaging workout to induce DOMS. Results showed that compared to a placebo, participants who took caffeine were much less sore on day 2 and 3 after training. Soreness was completely gone by the end of the third day in the caffeine group, suggesting it accelerated the recovery process.
Of interest, the caffeine group had a lower rating of perceived exertion and did more reps on the final set of the workout, indicating they worked harder than the placebo group, but still experienced less muscle soreness.
A second study had female trainees take the same dose of caffeine post-workout (at 24 and 48 hours post) and found that it decreased pain by between 26 and 48 percent, depending on the type of motion being assessed.
Why It Works: Scientists suggest that caffeine reduces soreness because it blocks central nervous receptors related to pain.
Use It: A 5 mg/kg appears ideal for reducing DOMS and enhancing training performance. This is equivalent to about 2.5 cups of coffee. There is some evidence that performance benefits from caffeine are greater when capsules are taken compared to drinking the equivalent dose as coffee. Most likely, it’s an individual preference.
#2: Dose BCAAs To Reduce DOMS
The branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are well known for their supposed ability to reduce muscle soreness and improve recovery. But do they measure up or is it all broscience?
A series of studies on both trained and untrained individuals show that BCAAs are worth the time and money to reduce (not prevent) DOMS in response to both resistance and endurance exercise. For example, taking 100 mg/kg of BCAAs reduced muscle soreness at 48 hours and allowed for faster recuperation of strength in untrained women (that BCAAs were effective in an untrained population is noteworthy because DOMS tend to be more severe in untrained muscles).
A second study of trained men found that dosing BCAAs before and after doing 100 muscle-damaging drop jumps reduced muscle soreness significantly. Maximal strength was decreased 33 percent less than a placebo.
The dosing protocol had trainees take BCCAs for 7 days before and for 2 days after training as well as 20 grams before and after the workout for a total of 280 grams. Researchers point to the steady stream of essential amino acids hitting the blood as the reason BCAAs were so effective in this study.
Why It Works: BCAAs increase protein synthesis and reduce muscle breakdown, conserving tissue during intense training. Creatine kinase, a marker of muscle damage was much lower in the BCAA trials mentioned, suggesting that more BCAAS preserves the integrity of the muscle fibers for less post-workout pain.
Use It: If your goal is reduced DOMS, invest in dosing BCAAs daily and before and after intense training. Smaller quantities of BCAAs have other therapeutic effects, but you may not find them effective for decreasing soreness.
Also, there’s evidence that taking the most popular BCAA leucine by itself is not effective for decreasing DOMS. One study found leucine alone made trainees increased soreness compared to a placebo.
#3: Take Taurine With BCAAs For A Synergistic Decrease In Muscle Pain
Taurine is increasing in popularity among athletes and for good reason. It improves energy metabolism, reduces stress, and aids cardiovascular function, but it also appears to augment the beneficial effect of BCAAs on preserving muscle tissue.
A recent study found that when untrained men took 2 grams of taurine and 3.2 grams of BCAAs three times a day for 2 weeks prior and 4 days after an eccentric workout, they experienced much less muscle damage and pain compared to a placebo. Recovery of strength and reduction of soreness was also accelerated in the taurine/BCAA group.
Why It Works: First, BCAAs and taurine improve the water content in muscle fibers, reducing muscle damage.
Second, providing a greater pool of amino acids may also improve sensitivity in the contractile part of the muscle fiber to calcium, while inhibiting the production of creatine kinase, a waste product promotes the feeling of muscle fatigue.
Third, together BCAAs and taurine decrease oxidative stress allowing trainees to attain a higher work capacity. Finally, they enhance protein synthesis and help rebuild muscle glycogen, accelerating recovery for less pain and shorter DOMS.
Finally, taurine often aids sleep quality because it activates GABA, a calming neurotransmitter, so that you can relax and recover.
Use It: Note the dosing protocol used in the study: BCAAs and taurine were taken three times a day for almost three weeks, suggesting you need a lot and you need it often to experience noticeable benefits.
#4: Try Topical Menthol To Reduce DOMS
Topical menthol has a cooling sensation on the skin that has been found to reduce muscle pain. For example, a recent study found that when active men used a menthol cream on trained muscles after a muscle-damaging eccentric workout, they were 63.1 percent less sore compared to a group that iced their muscles.
Menthol didn’t affect the loss of strength due to DOMS, suggesting that its use is limited in scope: It can reduce discomfort and improve quality of life post-workout, but it’s not that useful for athletes who must recover strength to compete.
Why It Works: Menthol causes calcium ions to affect neurons that sense temperature, thereby causing a cooling sensation and inhibiting the brain-pain connection.
Use It: Apply menthol post-workout and regular time points thereafter when you feel sore. Athletes and the general population can benefit from less pain, but be aware that less pain doesn’t mean you’ve recovered fully. Modify training accordingly.
#5: Use Curcumin and/or Phytoplant Blends To Reduce DOMS
Anecdotal reports indicate that a topical curcumin cream applied to trained muscles after workouts can significantly reduce muscle pain and accelerate recovery. Curcumin is a compound found in the herb turmeric that is well known for reducing inflammation.
Research supports the use of curcumin to treat DOMS: A phytoplant supplement called Bounce Back containing curcumin, bromelain enzymes (found in pineapple) resveratrol (found in grapes and red wine), and other plant-based antioxidants reduced muscle pain at 6 and 48 hours after doing an eccentric workout in untrained subjects.
Why It Works: Curcumin and phytoplants like resveratrol reduce inflammation throughout the body. Curcumin has been found to be particularly effective for reducing pain and swelling associated with injury.
Use It: Apply Topical curcumin immediately after training and ever 12 to 24 hours thereafter until muscle pain is gone. Another approach that may reduce DOMS further is to combine topical curcumin with a supplement of curcumin and phytoplants because a duel oral/topical approach tends to produce enhanced therapeutic results.
#6: Pre-condition Your Muscles To Reduce DOMS after Taking Time Off
Warming up before exercise by lightly using the same muscles you will be training can reduce DOMS. Try body weight or light load (20 percent of the 1RM) exercises.
Pre-conditioning the muscles a few weeks before you are going to begin training or practicing for sports will have an even greater effect. Here’s how it works:
In one study, athletes did 10 maximal eccentric biceps curls (which will produce minimal soreness). Then three weeks later they did a hard workout of 5 sets of 10 maximal eccentric contractions and had significantly less muscle pain from the second bout than a group that didn’t do the pre-conditioning mini-workout.
You can also pre-condition the muscles by training a heavy concentric workout prior to the muscle damaging eccentric contractions to reduce DOMS, although the effect is unlikely to be as great as with pre-conditioning the muscles weeks in advance.
One study found that doing 100 reps of concentric biceps curls before doing 12 maximal eccentric curls significantly reduced DOMS compared to just doing the eccentric workout.
Why It Works: We really don’t know! It’s thought that the initial bout of training increases sarcomeres and causes adaptations in the inflammatory response. Then, the extra sarcomeres reduce the strain on muscle fibers during the second bout, leading to less muscle damage.
Use It: If you’re an athlete who’s going to start resistance training or practicing and want to pre-condition the muscles, pick exercises for all the muscles you will be using during workouts. Do a few maximal eccentric contractions 7 to 10 days beforehand.
For example, try calf raises, squats, bicep curls, triceps extensions, bench press, pull-downs, and overhead presses to pre-condition the majority of the primary muscle groups.
#7: Train More Often or Do A Concentric Workout on the Days After Your DOMS-Inducing Workout
Increasing your training frequency can reduce DOMS. Obviously, that first hard workout is unpleasant, but a high training frequency in the range of three times a week per muscle group can decrease soreness because the muscles get conditioned to the hard training.
Similarly, working out with light conditioning or doing a concentric workout will reduce DOMS once you’re already sore. A recent study showed that doing concentric biceps curls with a light load for four days after a maximal eccentric workout resulted in a 40 percent decrease in muscle soreness and increases in range-of-motion. Unfortunately, strength and muscle function weren’t restored.
Why It Works: Scientists aren’t entirely sure, but they believe that the inflammatory response is smaller when you train regularly.
Use It: Increase your training frequency to two to three times a week to take advantage of the repeated bout effect. Remember to periodize training so that you continue to elicit adaptations by changing your workouts ever 3 to 6 weeks.
#8: Try Acupuncture on Tender Points (Where You’re Sore) To Reduce DOMS
Acupuncture can be effective to reduce DOMS, however, it’s unclear if acupuncture will restore strength and muscle function because this has not yet been studied.
Why It Works: Acupuncture affects the sensitized pain receptors, decreasing the brain’s message of pain. The result is a lower sensation of pain in the muscles.
Use It: Acupuncture has many therapeutic benefits and may be worth the investment if you’re training for a competition or are an athlete who must perform. Use it as a secret DOMS treatment for unplanned muscle soreness.
#9: Use Tart Cherry & Blueberry Juice
Research shows that antioxidant-rich fruits such as tart cherries and blueberries can significantly reduce muscle damage and pain after intense training.
For example, a study that had trainees drink blueberry juice before, immediately after, and at 12- and 36-hours post-workout found significantly lower markers of muscle damage than a placebo. The blueberry juice group also recovered muscle function faster as measured by strength tests at 12, 36 and 60 hours after training.
A similar study using tart cherry juice for 8 days pre-workout found that DOMS was reduced compared to a placebo. Strength loss was 80 percent less than in the placebo group, indicating that muscle function recovered much faster.
Why It Works: Scientists believe the anti-inflammatory compounds in these fruits help remove the waste products or “garbage” produced during hard training. Once the waste products are gone, the body is better able to repair tissue.
Use It: A variety of dosing methods work (pre-workout in the case of tart cherry and in the workout window in the case of blueberry juice) indicating that the key is to consume a concentrated form of one of these fruits on training days.
Avoid consuming your fruit of choice with milk because previous evidence shows that the proteins in milk inhibited the antioxidant activity in the body. Therefore, if you take whey protein, do so first during the “window” of opportunity that the muscles are most sensitive to protein feeding, and then take your antioxidants at least a half hour later once the whey has digested.
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