Reading Time: 5 minutes
You’ve got a new client and their goal is increased muscle strength. After their first or second strength training session, they send you a text that reads, “I am sore from that last workout. Mind if we reschedule the next exercise session?”
This is common, and it can also be frustrating. Canceled exercise sessions mean slower progress for your client and reduced earnings for you. So, what’s really behind their desire to skip their next workout? It’s likely that DOMS is to blame.
DOMS stands for delayed onset muscle soreness. With DOMS, muscle soreness appears 24 to 48 hours after a tough workout session. This is why it is called delayed onset muscle soreness. It doesn’t show up right after the exercise ends. Instead, it takes a day or two to cause discomfort.
The soreness experienced with DOMS can last for several days at a time. In general, the more intense the exercise, the more intense the muscle soreness. Conversely, less intense exercise results in less severe DOMS.
In addition to muscle soreness, other DOMS symptoms can include:
inflammation and swelling
decreased strength in the affected muscle
DOMS is one of two types of soreness that can occur after a workout. The other is acute muscle soreness. With acute muscle soreness, the soreness is felt either during or shortly after the workout. It also tends to disappear rather quickly instead of being longer-lasting like DOMS.
There are a few theories behind what causes the muscle soreness that we know as DOMS. They include:
Muscle damage. DOMS is a result of muscle damage. During strenuous exercise, microscopic tears are created in the muscle. This creates feelings of soreness. Enzyme concentrations are also increased, leading to a breakdown of the muscle tissue. Add them together and you have DOMS pain.
Increased exercise or load. When you increase the intensity or load of physical activity, it places even more tension on the muscle. Because the muscle isn’t used to this tension, it must work harder. This creates muscle damage and, ultimately, muscle soreness.
Eccentric exercise. With eccentric exercise, the muscle fiber lengthens versus shortens. (When you lower the weight during a biceps curl, this is an eccentric movement.) During this phase of the exercise, the muscle becomes longer. Research connects eccentric exercise with DOMS, especially if your body isn’t accustomed to this type of movement.
Lactic acid buildup is often blamed for all cases of muscle soreness. However, this actually has nothing to do with the soreness that occurs a day or two after exercise.
Lactic acid buildup is only associated with acute muscle soreness. This is because it clears out of the body quickly. Therefore, any soreness felt more than a few hours after exercise cannot be attributed to lactic acid buildup.
The soreness that occurs with DOMS is a result of muscle damage. The muscle has been pushed so hard that damage has occurred. During muscle repair, pain and soreness are experienced.
When clients are doing well with their workout plan, DOMS can create a roadblock. At a minimum, it can reduce their ability to produce force. Their strength reduces, as does their range of motion. This leads to compromises in form, which can also lead to injury.
In cases of severe muscle soreness, personal training clients may give up their training program altogether. They don’t like the idea of being in pain after a workout. So, they quit coming to their sessions and you never see them again.
For reasons such as this, it’s important to find ways to prevent or at least minimize DOMS. This enables clients to continue to progress. It also keeps them committed to their exercise plan.
The most basic way to prevent DOMS is to start new clients slowly. Get them used to the movements before you add weights. Keep the workout low in intensity until they’re strong enough to do more.
Once they’re ready for increases in intensity or load, only make small changes at a time. Also, don’t increase both at once. Increase just intensity or just load. The other can be increased once the exercise starts to feel easier to the client.
Alternating muscle groups can also reduce the risk of delayed muscle soreness. Do leg day on Mondays and Thursdays. Work the upper body on Tuesdays and Fridays. This helps give the muscle that was worked time to recover. Also, focus more on concentric contractions than eccentric contractions. This might reduce DOMS as well.
It’s also helpful to dispel the myth associated with “no pain, no gain.” Muscle soreness sometimes occurs after a workout. However, pain can be a sign that something else is going on.
Pain may signal a muscle strain, tear, or another type of muscle injury. In this case, medical attention may be needed. That’s much different than experiencing muscle soreness after a good workout.
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, muscle soreness occurs. Maybe you got overzealous with your workout and pushed yourself harder than you thought. Or you didn’t give a muscle group enough time to recover from the damage. So, now you feel soreness (not pain).
If you have a sore muscle from DOMS, light activity can help. Go for a walk or do some yoga. Keep the intensity and load low. The goal is more movement than getting in a good workout.
If the muscle soreness is severe, a rest day may be best. Treat yourself to a nice sports massage to help boost circulation to the affected muscle. Foam rolling is another option that provides similar results. Use the roller wherever soreness exists.
The fewer “surprises” your clients encounter when working out, the less likely they are to quit their exercise program. When doing your client intake, talk to them about muscle soreness. (You may even create a handout titled “What Is DOMS?”)
Let clients know that they may experience some soreness from time to time. This is common when new to exercise. Also encourage them to tell you when they feel sore. This may be a sign that the workout needs to be dialed back a bit. Explain that you’d rather reduce exercise intensity than have them give up on their fitness goals completely.
It’s equally important to stress the difference between soreness and pain. Ask the client to notify you if they ever feel pain during or after exercise. This could mean that there is damage beyond microscopic muscle tears. Medical attention may be required to diagnose and treat the source of the pain.
Finally, make sure they understand the importance of muscle recovery. Exercise is good but the body also needs downtime to help it heal. Incorporate rest days into their plan to reinforce this fact. Help them to feel comfortable with taking days off. This is as critical to optimal fitness as engaging in structured athletic training.
Want to help clients recover even more? ISSA offers Exercise Recovery Specialist certification. In this course, you will learn about the physiology of muscle damage and overtraining. It also covers recovery methods based on the client's DNA and how to use nutrition, sleep, and massage therapy to aid in recovery. It even provides advanced recovery strategies for more advanced clients.
ISSA's Exercise Recovery Specialization unlocks the science behind recovery techniques. As a Certified Exercise Recovery Specialist, personal trainers can apply this information to their exercise prescription and programs, helping athletes and general fitness clients alike.
Hody, S., Croisier, J., Bury, T., Rogister, B., & Leprince, P. (2019). Eccentric Muscle Contractions: Risks and Benefits. Frontiers In Physiology, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2019.00536
Receive $50 off your purchase today!