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  • Writer's pictureDavid Wilderman

What Causes Muscle Soreness After a Workout?

It has no doubt happened to most of us. You made it through a strenuous workout only to wake up the next morning with stiff, aching muscles. But don’t worry…it’s actually a fairly normal side effect of the muscle building process. It’s known in workout circles as DOMS, which stands for delayed onset muscle soreness.

Fact or fiction?

Even though DOMS is pretty prevalent, the exact mechanisms that cause it are not fully understood. The current thinking is that it is the result of microscopic tears in the muscle and surrounding connective tissue resulting from eccentric exercise. When we talk about movements we generally go through two phases–the concentric, or shortening phase, and the eccentric, or lengthening phase. If we use a biceps curl as an example, the concentric phase would be when we are at the starting position (elbows straight) and we bend our elbows to bring the weight up toward our shoulders. Here, the biceps muscle will be shortening. Where our muscles get the bulk of the work, and where the majority of the strengthening occurs, is in the eccentric phase. In our biceps example this would be returning from a bent elbow position to lower the weight back down to the original starting point. Other examples of an eccentric movement are when we walk down stairs or run downhill.

But where many of you think that the soreness is actually due to a build-up of lactic acid–that’s actually a myth! In actuality, lactic acid is usually gone from your muscles within about an hour after you complete your workout! In addition, when talking about DOMS, it’s not just about soreness. Symptoms can vary and may include stiffness, weakness, and sensitivity to touch. The soreness generally begins to appear within 12 to 24 hours after exercise, peaks between 24 and 72 hours, and usually disappears within 3-5 days.

So the good news, you may be asking? Due to your body building tolerance and adapting fairly rapidly, DOMS should become less frequent as you continue to exercise at the same intensity. In addition, just one soreness-inducing exercise session diminishes the chance of the same workout making you sore again for weeks or even months.

So what’s your game plan?

Unfortunately, science has yet to find a cure for alleviating DOMS every time it occurs. As common sense tells us, letting your muscles rest appears to be the best option. But there may also be a few ways that we can help speed up the process. Ginger, turmeric, and tart cherry juice are all natural anti-inflammatories that just may help to alleviate and minimize the pain. Other research has shown that cold water baths, or even contrast baths (alternating between baths of cold and warm water) may have a beneficial effect on recovery time. But a note of caution–before some of you go running out to fill up your bathtub with ice, it is worth mentioning that these studies only examined performance recovery, not pain relief.

You may be wondering about over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), and NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), such as Ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), and Naproxen (Aleve). Well, even though acetaminophen appears to be effective at relieving discomfort and, thereby, allowing athletes to push harder and improve performance, there’s just no plain concrete evidence to date that it is effective in relieving pain associated with DOMS. And even though one study claimed that NSAIDs (aspirin, ibuprofen) may have a positive effect depending on dosage and the time of administration, more recent studies have found that the over-the-counter form is ineffective.

One additional consideration when it comes to the use of NSAIDs–recent studies have shown that chronic use of over-the-counter drugs may actually inhibit muscle growth, though they may be okay to use on occasion. So the take home message? There’s really no great over-the-counter solution for stiff and achy muscles you get the next morning. Passive stretching has also been shown to be ineffective at alleviating DOMS symptoms.

What about no pain, no gain?

Not so fast! Yes, soreness is a natural result of exercise and a sign that your muscles are benefiting from all of your hard work. And while it’s true that most people will experience muscle aches at some point, especially if they are new to working out or are starting a new training program, in order to improve you must overload your muscles! But keep in mind the law of diminishing returns in fitness–the tipping point where you won’t get any more out of your workout and may actually do more harm than good. So heed this warning–if you are in pain during an exercise or if your discomfort lasts longer than a few days, it’s a wise move to see a Physical Therapist! Otherwise, train hard, rest appropriately, and enjoy the benefits of a stronger, healthier body.

Do you or someone you know have questions on how to get started with a strength training program? Call my office at once at (302)691-9055 or visit my website at to schedule your FREE 30 minute consultation to see how Physical Therapy can help. Don’t delay–schedule now!

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