Originally published March 3 2015
A trainer named Tamara Grand has a blog called fitnitchick and today I commented on her nice overview of muscle fatigue versus muscle soreness (DOMs) versus muscle strain. A lot of people new to strength training or muscle building might have a hard time knowing what kind of muscle discomfort is “good” and what means they have gone too far or even hurt themselves. In fact, I know many people have this question because I’ve been asked many times. What is the difference between normal muscle soreness (DOMS), muscle fatigue, and pain from muscle strain?
So, check out Tamara’s overview of muscle fatigue versus soreness and pain. Here, I want to reiterate some of the things I commented on and add a few things.
Many people in strength training expect to feel a certain area of soreness which indicates that they have ‘done it right’ and that the right muscle group was worked. For example, trainees are often worried if their glutes aren’t sore after deadlifts.
Although it is true that you should expect soreness in a particular prime mover after a novel bout of strength training (read, more volume, or something new) it is not a good indicator of whether you are doing the exercise correctly, as where you are sore changes as your training status changes. As I commented at fitnitchick, some DOMs, now and again, is to be expected even in the best possible bodybuilding and strength training plan, but being very sore after every workout should not be expected for recreational lifters. If you are more like me, and work it to the bone, then soreness might be a more regular thing and even expected and welcome. In other words, if you routinely push yourself to the outermost limits, you may be sore a lot of the time.
I’ve explained before that DOMs goes away as you become accustomed to a certain level of work, and as long as you don’t add a drastic amount of anything to that work, or change it up a lot, you should not expect a lot of soreness. A little soreness or discomfort is normal and a lot of soreness sometimes when you intentionally ramp things up is what you should expect.
I won’t add anything to fatigue because Tamara already explained that and I can’t add anything to it. But, for strain, remember that it is possible to NOT feel a muscle strain right then, on the day, as it happens. I’ve explained that here. And since most strains are small, but can balloon into something large if you don’t pay attention, you might want to read about it in the linked article.
Muscle strain pain will be more localized than simple DOMs, although it may not be a pinpoint pain and can sometimes seem to “migrate.” This is the curious observation that the area of pain felt from a muscle strain moves around a bit as the strain heals.
Although DOMs might make your muscles sore to the touch, they will not be extremely sensitive and painful to palpation, unlike with a muscle strain. When you press on the area of a muscle strain, it will be extremely sensitive and/or quite painful.
Can You Treat DOMS?
This is probably the number one question about delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and I would guess that thousands of articles have been written about it. There are not a lot of things that are guaranteed to help DOMs and you don’t need to treat something that is a natural manifestation of strenuous muscular work.
If you have very minor DOMs, sometimes some light sets that use the muscle group involved will help, and even make the soreness go away and not come back. I’ve found this to work many times. For example, say you have minor soreness in your quads. Some light and easy sets of squats might mitigate it, sometimes for good. Sometimes the soreness goes away and comes back. Stretching has been claimed by many to both prevent DOMs and cure it but there is no evidence that this is true.
Whether you are okay to train with DOMs is going to be a judgment call. Training with severe DOMs is just asking to set yourself back and not be able to train again in a reasonable time period. This is the problem with constantly overdoing it. You can’t train regularly and if you can’t train regularly, you can’t progress consistently. On the other hand, when you have very light DOMs you may be able to train just fine, and depending on how hard you go at it, not even be sore again afterward. There are no guarantees, but don’t be afraid of some discomfort and soreness.
Serious bodybuilders often find themselves having to juggle with a difficult conundrum. They always have a couple of sore muscle groups, or they feel that certain muscles have not recovered. Depending on how often they train, they can ‘run out’ of muscles to work! That is, they either have too many sore muscles or they just recently worked all the others. What do do?
Well, this conundrum can be avoided when you realize that it is a big fat myth that a muscle must be fully recovered before you can ever work it again. Recovery of a muscle begins immediately and is ongoing. Some people believe that if you work a muscle again before it is fully recovered, the muscle will stop recovering and then will not adapt to the previous work. So, you will, in effect, undo any progress you made and will be starting all over. This is, in a word, asinine. If it were true, we would never adapt to serious demands on our body!
Imagine if you took a job with heavy labor and you worked eight hour days five days a week. You would be very tired and sore. You would not have sufficient rest to recover from these demands. You would essentially be working your muscles before they had fully recovered. Now imagine that this would prevent your muscles from ever adapting. What do you think would happen? You’d be in big trouble. You’d never adapt to your new job. You’d be a walking zombie.
So, you can work a muscle again before it is fully recovered. If you continue to do this, at some point you will over-reach and develop a recovery debt. Some reduction in training or time off will take care of that and you will realize new levels of fitness. Bodybuilders use what they call feeder workout where they intentionally work a muscle one day to pre-exhaust it and then have a big workout for the same muscle group the next day to finish it off. I do this myself often. It works as long as you don’t abuse it. So, not only can you work a muscle if it is not recovered, and even sore, you can do it on purpose for additional stimulus and muscle exhaustion!