No DOMs? No problem

Do you get really upset if you’ve smashed yourself in the gym and you’re not sore the next day?
I get you, it kinda feels like you’ve been robbed.

You put in all that hard work and yet you’re able to walk up/down stairs and use your limbs with hardly any trouble.

I’m happy to say that science indicates that not only is not feeling sore NOT a signal of a “bad workout,” or that you “didn’t work hard enough.”

In actual fact – too frequent, too intense, perpetual DOMs may be an indication that you’ve overdoing it and you might not actually grow, or adapt optimally.

One of the premier researchers of muscle hypertrophy, Sir Bro Brad Schoenfeld, has been studying the mechanisms of muscle growth for decades. His research led us to postulate that in order for a muscle to grow, we needed three things;

1 – Mechanical tension

AKA, lifting heavy shit. Mechanical tension stimulates our muscle fibres and overloads them, and is the process of producing force and then stretching which our muscles go through during concentric and eccentric movements. Mechanical tension is heightened by load (<important).

2 – Metabolic stress

Otherwise known as the “pump,” this is the process wherein muscular contractions generate and release metabolites, or byproducts of the forces generated. When your muscles run out of immediate energy and ATP synthesis slows, you get an acute accumulation of lactate, a change of PH and a build up of hydrogen ions. This is what gives you that burny feeling. Following a workout, you also get a higher cellular swelling, the production of growth hormones and production of reactive oxygen species, activating satellite cells and enhancing muscle protein synthesis.

3 – Muscle damage

This is where DOMs come in. Slow eccentric training, lifting in a novel way, increasing volume or performing a task that we’re not yet conditioned to creates the muscle damage which we believe is responsible for your inability to sit down without screaming the next day. Muscle damage creates a lot of inflammation, and increases inflammatory markers such as CRP and CK.

Who does #3 work for?

This muscular damage portion was perceived to be key to producing “gains,” but we’re starting to question that notion given that a number of studies have shown that greater muscular damage does NOT enhance hypertrophy. (Check out this incredible article by Stronger By Science for further details and reading on the subject!)

A recent review in March this year suggests that we don’t have significant evidence to say that higher muscle damage and higher DOMs = greater gains.

Some even postulate (specifically, Carl Juneau) that excessive DOMs may be a sign that you pushed too far. This would make a bit of sense, because if you consider that in stimulating muscle hypertrophy, you need to create metabolic stress via tension, the greater the need to recover from that stress, the higher the workload for the body. Carl also points to exercises such as downhill running, long duration cardio and things like hiking as methods to induce soreness, but not growth.

So we can clearly see that muscle soreness and hypertrophy don’t always go hand in hand.
Consider also, if you need to spend a lot of time and energy just repairing the damage you did – what is left for building?

Too much of anything is not good, including DOMs

I have often said to new trainees, and those whom are beginning a new program, that you should expect to be sore for up to 2 weeks after changing your programming. I also like clients that I have trained with for the first time, or shown a new method / exercise to, to be sore. Simply because soreness in the place which we were targeting (even if it’s not a sign of hypertrophy), can be a sign of isolation and of innervation! It shows us that the specific part of your body we wanted to hit, has been hit.

But after a couple of sessions or weeks, excessive, daily soreness is a sign that you’re overdoing it. You may not be recovering optimally, you may be in need of more food, more rest, potentially even an intra-workout supplement such as creatine or carbohydrates, to help ATP production happen optimally, to sustain hydration status and to prevent a loss of force production.

We can also consider that from a very logical perspective, when you’re too sore, you don’t move much. You can’t train as hard, and you’re less enthusiastic to back up one brutal session after another.

Many elite coaches, bodybuilders and powerlifters have likened over-training and excessive DOMs to digging a hole.

Each and every time you go to the gym, you’re stressing your body.

The idea is to recover as hard as you trained, to re-fill that hole by refueling, resting and replenishing. So that the next day, you can dig a new hole and then re-fill that one.

You should never train harder than that which you can recover from has been said time and time again, in many different ways, by people who are far more educated and experienced than me.

If you are not recovering, if your DOMs is continuous, excessive and debilitating, it’s a little bit like continuing to dig a hole that you never refill, but not only missing the opportunity to recover, but making the hole bigger the next day and the next day and the next.

DOMs could therefore be a signal that your hole is too damn big.
Or like having a debt that continues to accumulate interest to a degree far beyond your ability to repay it.

De-emphasising muscle damage – re-emphasising tension?

I don’t think we’ve come to a consensus on the role which muscle damage plays yet, but we can definitely err on the side of caution. Training to absolute failure every set, or even every day, is not necessary for growth. Neither are training methods which produce intense amounts of DOMs such as negative rep training, forced reps or consecutive drop sets to failure necessarily going to produce better results than straight sets.

What is kind of nice about potentially de-emphasising the role of muscle damage, is it re-emphasises the necessity for muscular tension and metabolic stress. It places a bit more attention on things like lifting heavy loads (tension) and training for strength, as well as the need to periodise and structure our training to accumulate volume without excessive stress and burden upon recovery. We can now start studies and lines of inquiry that indicate better ways to train and to recover.

If you’re interested in hearing more about the science in this area, I’d highly recommend you read / listen to the following resources;

4. Sigma Nutrition Radio – Episode 239 with Carl Juneau, Phd

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