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What Is DOMS and What Causes It?

The intense burn you feel during exercise is caused by the buildup of lactic acid – one of the primary waste-products generated during anaerobic respiration. Originally, sports physiologists thought DOMS was just a continuation of the soreness that you feel during your workout. They assumed that the muscle soreness experienced over the next few days was are result of lactic acid remaining in the muscles. The most commonly held view now is that DOMS is primarily caused by the micro-damage that occurs to muscle during high-intensity workouts, especially bodybuilding training. Negative repetitions, where you lower the weight in a slow and controlled manner, seem to magnify the degree of muscle soreness. Negatives apparently cause greater micro-trauma (damage at the muscle cellular level) than the positive,or lifting, part of the repetition. More reason to concentrate on negatives just as much as positives.

The type of pain you feel during and after a workout is different than the pain produced by an injury. You should try and develop the ability to recognize the difference between the good pain (i.e. soreness) from training and the bad pain associated with an injury. Unless the soreness is so extreme that it prevents you from doing normal day-to-day physical activity such as walking or stair climbing, then mild to moderate soreness is good pain. It’s an indication that you had a great workout and that you trained hard enough to stimulate the muscles to new growth. A sharp pain that occurs on only one side of your body is surely an injury.

DOMS will be most pronounced in beginners, as their muscles are not used to strenuous exercise. With time their bodies will adapt to the workloads and the soreness will diminish with each respective workout. If you’ve been training for a while you can probably relate to this. The first few weeks were probably brutal but with time the intensity of the post-workout soreness is greatly diminished. Now, earlier I said that it wasn’t necessary to be intensely sore following a workout, but if you follow the same workout month after month and experience virtually no soreness, odds are your body has gotten accustomed to your workout. You’ve reached a plateau and you’ll cease to make any strength or size gains until you change up your routine. 


No matter how many years you’ve been working out, it’s a good idea to change your exercise program every four to six weeks. Besides the increased enthusiasm that comes with a new training routine, you’ll also experience an increase in soreness – in other words, your body is being forced to break down and build up new muscle tissue. The key to continued success is shocking your body with progressive overload. Every time you shock your body with a new exercise routine you can expect the soreness to return. 

You don’t need to radically change your training routine. Even small changes can leave you feeling pretty sore. You can change the order of your workout, or the speed at which you perform the reps. You can use different exercises for the same bodypart, or you can increase or decrease the reps. Keep this in mind when designing your new program. Start out with a few simple changes and gradually increase the intensity.

Okay. So what if you’re still sore from your previous workout? Should you still train the same muscles? If the soreness is mild, then go ahead and work right through it. In fact an extra shot of blood to the area will only speed up recovery and help eliminate the soreness. If, however, there is still a great deal of soreness remaining from the last training session, then the muscle has not completely recovered. 

Hitting it again before full recovery has taken place may push you into a state of overtraining. The end result could be a loss of strength and size. All right, let’s say you have gone overboard and can hardly move because you’re so sore. Is there anything you can do to alleviate the soreness? You betcha!


Most of us know that stretching helps warm up muscles and is a great way to improve flexibility, but stretching is also an excellent way to reduce soreness. Stretching a muscle during or after a workout increases the transport of nutrients to the area and speeds up the removal of waste products. More nutrients and less metabolic waste helps quicken the body’s repair processes.


Hop on a piece of cardio equipment after your workout. No need to do a full cardio session.Something in the order of five to ten minutes at low to moderate intensity would suffice. Try to pick a cardio machine that involves the muscles you trained that day. While all machines will bring in the legs, some of them also require the use of the upper body muscles (i.e. rower and crosstrainer). As with stretching, light cardio will help transport waste products away from the muscles and bring in extra nutrients.


A final recommendation is to try massage. Athletes in the former Eastern Bloc countries used massage for decades to speed recovery and reduce post-exercise soreness. A good massage therapist uses different techniques to help remove metabolic waste products from the body and increase oxygen delivery to the area. Some people just aren’t satisfied unless they’re sore the next day. Although in general increased soreness means more micro-damage and therefore more growth, this is not written in stone. So until we understand more about the whole process, it’s probably adequate to say that mild to moderate soreness is preferred if we are looking for muscle growth.

Robert Kennedy: Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding, The Complete A-Z Book On Muscle Building. 2008
Nick Evans: Bodybuilding Anatomy. 2012
Arnold Schwarzenegger: The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, 2013

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