Safety / Injuries

Subscribe for more content

Is DOMS Cramping Your Client’s Style?

ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, DOMS - What Muscle Soreness is Trying To Tell You...

So, training sessions have been going well with your new client.

He’s progressing in his workouts.

Then, you get the text:

“I think I pushed it too hard at the gym; I am so sore, can we reschedule?”

Raise your hand if you’ve heard this from a client before.

This is common and very frustrating. Canceled sessions mean slower progress for your client and less money for you. So, who’s to blame? DOMS is.

DOMS – The Downfall of Many a Workout

Delayed onset muscle soreness, more commonly known as DOMS, is one of two types of soreness we sometimes experience when working out.

The other type is acute muscle soreness, which you feel during or shortly after a workout and that disappears again soon after. (Wilmer et al., 99). It’s caused by the buildup of fluids.

DOMS is the kind of insidious, longer-lasting soreness we experience the day after a workout and that may last one day, or several (Braun and Sforza, 2011).

Exactly what causes DOMS is not entirely understood, but exercise researchers have a few ideas:

  • Eccentric muscle movement. One idea is that DOMS is caused by eccentric motions during exercise. The eccentric motion is the action where the muscle lengthens, rather than shortens (Wilmer et al, 100). It’s like what you experience in your calf muscles when you go down the stairs as opposed to up the stairs.
  • New movement, new load. Another idea is that a new type of exercise or an increased load that you aren’t used too can trigger DOMS (Braun and Sforza, 2011).
  • What Muscle Soreness is Trying To Tell You...
  • Damaged muscles. DOMS is also thought to be caused by damaged muscle. Increased enzyme concentrations present in the blood after heavy exercises can contribute to the breakdown of muscle tissue (Wilmer et al, 100). Intense exercise can cause little tears in the muscle and that leads to pain.

Wait, What about Lactic Acid?

Lactic acid buildup is often blamed as the culprit in the soreness we feel the day after an intense workout, but it has nothing to do with the misery and pain.

Lactic acid buildup only occurs with acute muscle soreness, and it goes away either immediately after the workout or within a few hours of the workout.

This is why traditional methods to relieve acute muscle soreness, like stretching and icing, are not very effective for relieving DOMS.

DOMS is actually more of a response to the damage done to the muscles and not so much the buildup of lactic acid like with acute muscle soreness (Braun and Sforza, 2011).

DOMS Can Kill Progression

When your client is trucking along, doing really well with your training plan and feeling good, a bout with DOMS can be a major roadblock.

When your client is suffering from DOMS, he has a reduced ability to produce force. This translates to losing some strength and range of motion. The strength will slowly start to return after a few days to weeks (Wilmer et al 2011).

This is why it is important to give your clients recovery time or to alternate muscle groups.

To make gains in training, it is important to prevent or at least minimize DOMS. The best way to do this is to start slowly with new movements and exercises and gradually increase intensity during the first few weeks (Braun and Sforza, 2011).

For a strong, well-conditioned athlete there is some benefit to going all out and being sore, but for newbies and mere mortals, this is not usually a good idea (Wilmer et al. 105).

Another issue with DOMS is that the decreased muscle strength can mess with form, which can lead to further injury.

To Be Or Not To Be, In Pain?

Click to view full infographic or here to download PDF and print for your clients.

ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, DOMS - What Muscle Soreness is Trying To Tell You..., What DOMS is telling you Infographic

Many trainers, athletes, and even casual gym attendees like to live by the classic “no pain, no gain” philosophy, or at least to pretend to.

But it’s important to understand what your pain is trying to tell you.

While DOMS is usually not a good thing, it also isn’t all bad. Muscle soreness may be a sign that something in a workout went wrong, such as improper form and inappropriate progression, like trying to lift a weight that is way too heavy.

You could then consider DOMS to be a protective mechanism telling you to practice better form the next time you perform a certain movement (Wilmer et al., 105). Another side benefit is that your clients’ muscles will be better prepared for those same moves in subsequent workouts.

However, when DOMS has your client in it’s grips, it can mess up his or her form, halt workout progression, and even cancel entire days of training sessions. In other words, this kind of pain can be counterproductive and in fact, lead to no gain.

Pain Is Only Temporary

While your clients recover from the soreness, they should still stay active and do low-intensity workouts such as walking and yoga. Anything that doesn't put a heavy load back on the affected muscles is ideal.

Of course, sometimes you are just too sore to be effective or follow proper form; sometimes you just need a rest day.

When you write a program for your clients, be sure to program in a slow progression, this includes starting light when you introduce new movements and reassessing their fitness levels periodically to see if they are ready to kick their training up a notch.

Watch their form each time you add weight to an exercise to be sure they can handle the new load.

If you carefully design your program and your client stays on track, increasing the intensity at specific intervals and allowing their muscles to rest, DOMS should never be an issue.

Dominique Groom


1. Braun, William, and Gary Sforzo. "Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness."SpringerReference (n.d.): n. pag. 2011. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.

2. Hurley, Caitlin F., Disa L. Hatfield, and Deborah Riebe. "The Effect of Caffeine Ingestion on Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (2013): 1. Web.

3. Wheeler, Amanda A., and Bert H. Jacobson. "Effect of Whole-Body Vibration on Delayed Onset Muscular Soreness, Flexibility, and Power." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 27.9 (2013): 2527-532. Web.

4. Wilmore, Jack H., and David L. Costill. Physiology of Sport and Exercise. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2004. Print.

Related Articles

DOMS - Why Some People Suffer More Than Others

DOMS, we all get it sometimes, but have you ever noticed that some people suffer more than others after an intense workout? Researchers are hard at work trying to figure out why some people are more prone to post-exercise muscle soreness than others. We’ll update you on the latest findings about gender, genetics, and DOMS so you can better help your clients work out pain-free.