If you work out — and you, kind reader, most definitely do — you're probably familiar with soreness the day or two after said workout. But, not just any exercise can result in that tenderness and intense soreness you feel. What you're experiencing is called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and it's typically onset by hard workouts where you, perhaps, increased your reps or performed moves you've never done before.
Paul Searles, CSCS, from the New York Sports Science Lab (along with others we've interviewed in the past), told POPSUGAR that what causes DOMS isn't scientifically proven, but it's widely thought that it's a result of microtears in the muscle fibers, which then leads to gradual inflammation.
Workouts that focus on eccentric portions of exercises — movements where you're lowering your body under control and lengthening the muscles — as opposed to isometric (fixed position) and concentric (shortening) movements typically lead to these microtears, Searles said. Eccentric movements would be, for example, lowering your body into a squat or deadlift or, as Searles mentioned, a negative pull-up. Also, "the more total reps in a workout, the more microtrauma in the muscles, and therefore more soreness after," he explained.
How to Treat Sore Muscles
DOMS can last for days or even a week depending on the intensity of your workout and, in all actuality, it's not something you can cure. There are things you can do, though, to help with the discomfort, and a lot of these remedies can be found at home (see a full list here). Ahead are a few options you have for treating DOMS:
- Ice and Heat: Some studies say that ice impedes recovery; others say the same for heat. (Read about that debate here.) But, experts have told us that icing, especially in an ice bath, and using heating pads can temporarily ease discomfort.
- Massage and Foam Rolling: Massage has been shown to help ease DOMS because it increases blood flow to the muscles. Foam rolling can be a form of self-massage, especially for your legs, if you don't have access to a massage therapist or physical therapist.
- Active Recovery: Light lifting, walking, stretches that involve consistent movement, or cycling are good options to choose from here. The more you do a workout that made you sore, the easier it will be and the less sore it will make you — which is called the "repeated bout effect" — but choosing forms of active recovery or picking workouts that target different muscle groups that aren't sore might feel better depending on how you're feeling.
- Nutrition: In small studies, tart cherry juice and chocolate milk have shown positive effects on DOMS. Make sure you're also eating enough carbs and protein for muscle recovery and drinking lots of water.
DOMS is manageable, and you can also read up on expert-approved tips for how to treat sore leg, back, and chest muscles specifically. Here's more good news: soreness can absolutely mean muscle gain! Sander Rubin, MD, sports medicine specialist at Northwestern Medicine, told POPSUGAR in a previous interview that inflammation is required for muscles to get bigger and stronger. As part of that response, your body sends out pain signals, which can cause that feeling of soreness. However, DOMS isn't necessarily required for growth, Dr. Rubin said. "The lack of soreness does not mean your workout wasn't successful in building muscle."
Prevention and Warning Signs to Remember
You can try to prevent DOMS by gradually easing into workouts, Tedd Keating, PhD, associate professor of kinesiology at Manhattan College, told POPSUGAR in a previous interview. "Remember, big changes are one of the causes [of DOMS]. Be especially cautious when adding or turning up exercises with a strong eccentric component," he said — aka, be mindful of how many squats, deadlifts, etc. you're doing. Mix it up!
Make sure you're also mindful of the amount of pain you're in, especially if it radiates down your legs or gets worse instead of better, as well as any muscle atrophy or profound weakness you feel, and contact your doctor accordingly. Rhabdomyolysis, the rapid breakdown of skeletal muscle tissue, can be indicated by cola-colored urine and is another reason to seek medical attention because, if left untreated, it could lead to kidney failure. For more of our articles on all things DOMS, check out our handy DOMS page.