Muscle soreness? Fast aid!

If you are a beginner in training, you have implemented new methods, especially “shocking” ones (dropset, supersets, etc.) or you're coming back to exercising after strategic training, you must feel more intensive muscle soreness (DOMS). There are many myths around this topic nowadays, and you can hear hundreds of “interesting” theories, which are not able to help overcome pain in the muscles.

Why does it hurt? The genesis of DOMS

Against common opinions, muscle soreness is caused by micro injuries in muscles – the result of minor damage of muscle fibres, which occur during training. The process of rebuilding them and recovery means the increase in circumference and muscle strength (adaptation to workout). The excentric phase of the movement (when the muscles are extended), e.g. lowering the load to the chest during standing or lying barbell press, lowering the load during barbell rowing or in deadlift, influences most creation of the micro-injuries. Lactic acid, which is created during intensive unaerobic work, is not connected by scientists with creating micro-injuries in muscles (it is somehow additional). Lactates are removed from muscles within one hour after finishing work (with possible slight diversions, depending on the level of professionalism of the person, type of workout, tolerance of lactic acid).

What kind of work may cause micro-injuries in muscles?

Unfortunately, practically any kind of training may cause muscle pain:

  • moderately- and long-distance running (especially if you run the distance 30-40% bigger than usually, or you haven't run regularly, or you increase intensity: pace per each kilometer, etc.),

  • sprint, ascent, VO2 max workouts (of maximal intensity),

  • biathlon training (snatch, clean and jerk + complementary exercises – e.g. classical deadlift and with snatch grip, classical and snatch squats),

  • powerlifting (squats, bench press, deadlift + complementary exercises – board press, partial squats, deadlift from a step, etc.),

  • bodybuilding training,

  • martial arts training, especially those based on grips (e.g. BJJ,sambo, judo, wrestling),

  • intensive stretching,

  • long-term endurance work, e.g. swimming, cycling.

Strength training: the biggest work you do within one time unit – the higher intensity of your training. For example, if you do 10 squats with the load of 100 kg – you lift 1 tonne in total. If you approach the next set within 2 minutes, e.g. with the load of 110 kg – your total load in squat will increase to 2.1 tonne (e.g. within 5 minutes of the workout). Doing additional repetitions or shortening the relax break means increasing the intensity of the workout in a time unit.

The same rule concerning increasing the intensity of training applies to:

  • combined sets (few exercises done for particular muscle group) e.g. arm lifts to the front, to the side, bent-over lifts, outward rotation with a dumbbell),

  • supersets (two exercises done for opposite muscle groups) e.g. arm curl and extention (biceps + triceps), squats + deadlift on straight legs (front and back of the thigh), lunges + good morning bent (front of the thigh – quadriceps, glutes vs hamstring, glutes, extensors), bench press + rows, etc.,

  • giant sets (many sets in a row),

  • dropsets – sets with decreasing load,

  • sets with forced repetitions (e.g. with the help of a partner).

In running – the faster you finish a particular distance, the higher the intensity of work (aerobic threshold, heart rate, level of lactic acid). In extreme cases, training in intensive anaerobic conditions (e.g. running in the pace of 16 km/h for a moderately-trained individual) causes breakdown, inability of continuing the work (there are many adverse processes, among others, cumulation of lactic acid in muscle and in blood). Only the best-trained long-distance competitors may let themselves stay in high intesity zone for longer time (their aerobic threshold is very high – even with the pace of 16-20 km.h!).

The same issue concerns martial arts – the more hits (with proper power), the bigger work. The acidification increases, as well as heart rate. The more intensive fight – the higher heart rate and there are also some adverse changes in muscles.

Scientific method of limiting muscle soreness: warm-up and cool down

It was proven in research, that appropriate warm-up matter a lot for decreasing the perception of pain in muscles – 24 and 48 hours after finishing the workout. In one of the experiments done by Norwegian scientists in 2012 – 36 volunteers (21 women and 15 men) were divided into the following groups:

  • with a warm-up before resistance training (20 minutes of riding a standing bike before resistance training),

  • with cool down after workout (20 minutes of riding a standing bike right after resistance training),

  • control (just resistance training, without warm-up or cool down).

The resistance training included lunges (5 sets x 10 repetitions) with the load of 40 and 50% of body mass (appropriately for women and men). i.e. for a woman weighing 50 kg the load of 20 kg was used. It was measured, how particular options of workout influence the perception of DOMS in rectus femoris and isometric muscle strength 24 and 48 hours after finishing work.

What should you remember?

48 hours after finishing the workout the warm-up group felt the smallest pain in muscles; the group with cool down – moderate, and the biggest pain was perceived by the group of people with only resistance training.


  1. omitting warm-up increases the perception of pain 24 and 48 hours after finishing resistance training,

  2. sacrifice 10-15 minutes for a warm-up before the resistance training (including warm-up sets),

  3. after finishing resistance training, do an 8-10-minute cool down (i.e. low-intensity activity), e.g. jumping, boxer's run, jogging, jumping Jacks – ended with static stretching. Such activity increases the tempo of removing the metabolites, which were created in muscles, and it may decrease the after-workout soreness.

Sources: 1. “The effect of warm-up and cool-down exercise on delayed onset muscle soreness in the quadriceps muscle: a randomized controlled trial.” J Hum Kinet. 2012 Dec;35:59-68. doi: 10.2478/v10078-012-0079-4. Epub 2012 Dec 30. Olsen O, Sjøhaug M, van Beekvelt M, Mork PJ. Department of Human Movement Science, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway.