“Dear Steve, I think my legs are dying and I can’t walk. HALP!”
Yesterday, or two days ago, you did a strenuous workout for the first time in your life (or for the first time in a while). You dutifully did your squats, push-ups, and rows (if you followed the Beginner Bodyweight workout), or you did some barbell squats or deadlifts or pull-ups. Or maybe you decided to run a 5k just for kicks.
And during the workout, you may have felt pretty good!
That was two days ago, though. When you woke up yesterday, every muscle in your body felt like it was hit by a mac-truck. “Welp, this sucks, but at least tomorrow things should be better,” you tell your brain.
And holy crap, it’s like your body forgot how to function. Maybe your arms are stuck in the permanent t-rex position. Perhaps your groin is tight in places you didn’t even realize you could be sore. Walking down stairs or doing anything active may feel like trying to play the QWOP game (please take 2 seconds to play this – it will be the hardest you’ve ever laughed).
So, what are you supposed to do:
If it’s been only a day, should you be worried?
Maybe it’s been two days and you are supposed to workout. Do you skip it?
You’re torn between sitting in an ice bath to numb the soreness or climbing into a hot tub until you resemble a prune.
Let me first introduce you to my obnoxious friend, DOMS.
Although you’re probably already familiar, you’ve never been formally introduced to DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness).
First of all, don’t panic. DOMS is totally natural, and you’re going to be fine. Great, even!
In short, DOMS is a result of teeny tiny tears in your muscles from really strenuous activity, meaning you did things that your body is not normally used to.
If you’re brand new to working out or have taken a few weeks off only to jump back in at a high level of stress (heavy squats after a few weeks off), think of DOMS like your muscles saying: in exchange for the recovery I have to do, I’m going make YOU feel it. And actually, although it may not feel like it, this process is TOTALLY normal.
It tends to peak around 48 hours after training, but can occur anytime after your training day (hence the “Delayed” part of DOMS).
Note: this should definitely feel like a soreness (even a painful or deep soreness is okay), but a sharp pain or severe pain is something you should speak to your doctor about.
So, think of our friend DOMS like an obnoxious friend complaining:
“Whoa whoa whoa, I didn’t sign up for this much activity. You just did a lot of things I’m not used to. So I’m going to piss you off tomorrow and make you super sore. And the day after that? It’s going to be WORSE.”
What an ass! Like most bros, our boy DOMS hates Leg Day and wants you to skip it (like he and all the other bros do). So you may notice that DOMS tends to punish you more for big compound lifts like squats, deadlifts, lunges, etc.
Is Doms Good for Me Or Bad For Me?
Now you’re thinking, “I read on a motivational poster once “No Pain, No Gain!” … is that true?”
What you’re really asking is: “is this muscle soreness good for me? Does that mean it’s working? What about TOO much soreness?”
When you exercise (especially strength train), you’re breaking down your muscles, and over the next few days they are rebuilding themselves up stronger.
But if you are SUPPOSED to break down your muscles, then soreness is good. And if SOME soreness is good, then DOMS should be your new best friend because it means it’s REALLY working, right? Maybe.
THE TRUTH: Yes, being sore after a workout can be a sign that you adequately pushed your muscles hard to elicit a response from them – especially if you haven’t worked out that hard in a while. So, DOMS is that friend you want to see occasionally, but not a friend you want to hang out with every day.
This means that once you get used to this level of training, DOMS will go away and you can make huge progress in your training without this soreness.
Don’t think that you need to be sore in order to get a good workout. DOMS goes away quickly and most of your progress will come without DOMS.
DOMS isn’t a total friend though. You might feel so sore and stiff and tight that you don’t think you could possibly work out today (even though it’s a scheduled workout day).
So, some soreness is good, but don’t go searching to destroy yourself in a single session. We’re after real, long term progress, remember?
That’s why we subscribe to eight-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney’s motto: “stimulate, not annihilate” method of training at Nerd Fitness. I don’t want you puking, I don’t want you so sore you can’t move, I don’t want you so tired at the end of a workout that you just want to lie down on a mat and die.
Yup, it’s tough to find that balance, especially if you’re brand new to training and have no idea what level of soreness you should feel. Most people first feel DOMS and think something is wrong, when in fact that level of soreness is totally normal.
Don’t be afraid to take a trial and error, self-experimentation mindset!
Of course, if you’re sitting there right now with T-rex arms and leg muscles so sore you’re like Tin Man, you’re probably thinking the following:
Luckily, the next section is for you.
What do I do Today Though?
So you’ve met DOMS, and whether it’s been 24 or 48 or 72 hours, he’s pretty much immobilized you. I realize the following is going to sound counterintuitive, but trust me:
You’re going to do your workout today. If it’s the day after the workout, you’re going to do some light activity.
Is it two days after (aka your next workout)? Yup, you’re going to go through a solid warm-up, and no matter how sore you are, you’re going to do your next workout. You see, when you exercise, you’re increasing blood flow to your muscles. By putting your body through the motions, you’re actually speeding up your recovery.
No, this will not cause further damage to your muscles. In fact, this is the best possible way to improve the soreness you’re currently feeling. Yes, it’s going to suck for the first few repetitions, but each repetition is exercising those sore muscles, stretching them back out, and making them less sore. Think of it like you’re showing your muscles there’s really nothing to be afraid of.
Movement is the best cure for soreness.
That’s why if you’re feeling sore the day immediately after, you can stretch, take a walk, and perform light versions of your movements in order to expedite the healing process!
So when in doubt, move and stretch. This can be done throughout the day, when you wake up, before, during, and after your workout. Just MOVE MORE!
Just remember that because you’re so sore and tight, your range of motion initially will be much smaller than a few days prior.
If you want to help fighting off DOMS, consider mixing in some Nerd Fitness Yoga on your off days to speed up recovery and elongate those muscles!
- Don’t fear DOMS.
- Keep to your workout schedule.
- Use light activity and stretching to recover quicker and feel better.
What other questions do you have about our obnoxious friend DOMS?