DOMS(delayed onset muscle soreness) and what causes it

So, where does muscle soreness come from, you ask? Well, the answer to this question is somewhat elusive. However, let’s dig…

In researching DOMS , I have to say that I am fascinated and yet thoroughly annoyed at the response to dealing with being sore after a good workout. Rest, don’t work that hard, you over did it, etc. Blech!!!! Really? Have we all gotten so used to being mediocre that a little discomfort (that shows you how hard you worked ) is dealt with by saying, maybe I shouldn’t push so hard next time? Or that lactic acid is to blame(see the blog entitled “lactic acid and the misconceptions therein). Are you f***ing kidding me? I, for one, LOVE my muscle soreness. Especially, when it occurs in brand new places that I am unaccustomed to feeling or in the sweet spots like in my abs or butt. Here are some interesting segments from a great article I found in the journal (again, if you haven’t subscribed to The Crossfit Journal yet, what are you waiting for???? It is the best $25 I have ever spent.)

Muscle Damage and Soreness: An Overview

By Tony Webster

In ExPhysiology, Medical/Injuries

November 05, 2008

“The article explains that you need the pain, swelling, and shakiness of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) because it indicates that your muscles are adapting to your last workout by getting stronger. It discusses why some workouts hurt more than others (and massage and stretches don’t do much to minimize it), and strategies to manage DOMS over the long term.

There are essentially two hypotheses for what initiates muscle damage in the first place: a “metabolic” hypothesis and a “mechanical” hypothesis.
The “metabolic” hypothesis, predominant for many years, states that muscle damage is caused by metabolic deficiencies or excesses. It was believed that lactic acid (generated during high intensity exercise) was the cause of muscle soreness. While it is fair to say that muscle burn or discomfort during high intensity exercise has been linked to lactic acid, there is no evidence to suggest that this is in any way linked to subsequent muscle damage or soreness. Therefore this idea has been disproved (I will elaborate on this point a little more below).
While there are undoubtedly many metabolic consequences of muscle damage, most in the scientific community now agree that its initial cause is mechanical in nature.
The “mechanical” hypothesis points to eccentric actions of muscles as the main cause of muscle damage. What are eccentric actions? Well, there are essentially three types of muscle action (note I am using the word action as opposed to contraction – read on to find out why). There are concentric muscle actions where a muscle shortens when it generates tension, a true “contraction.” This usually refers to the actual lifting phase or acceleration phase of any movement: think of the “up” phase in a squat or shoulder press for example – muscles are shortening and the weight is lifted. There are isometric actions when muscles generate tension but there is no change in length: think about holding a handstand position or attempting a deadlift which is simply too heavy for you to move – lots of muscle tension but no movement. And there are eccentric muscle actions usually associated with the lowering phase or deceleration phase of any movement. During an eccentric muscle action there is tension in the muscle but it is actively lengthening at the same time. The “down” phases of a squat or shoulder press are examples. It turns out that eccentric actions are structurally much more stressful for muscle fibers than any other form of muscle action. The exact reason why is unclear, but it appears that during eccentric actions the weak links in the microstructure of the muscle fibers are more likely to “pop” or “tear” than during other forms of muscle action. This can actually be seen in the muscle fibers under a microscope. At very high magnification, there is a characteristic array of regularly repeating bands within healthy muscle fibers. After severe eccentric exercise these bands can be seen to be disrupted.”

The article then goes on to talk about ‘rhabdo”, when the membrabes of the muscle fibers are damaged and certain muscle proteins leak out into the blood stream. This can lead to extreme soreness, shaking and swelling as well as limited muscle function. No bueno. If you have extreme swelling in your muscles and your pee is the color of coke a cola, get the to the ER, ASAP!

The good news is called the “repeated bout effect”, in short, another similar bout of excercis will not produce the same effect. We survive, we adapt,  we evolve, we recover more quickly, WE GET STRONGER!!!!! These results are have not been scientifically quantified, yet “they are probably a combination of increased structural strength of muscle fibers, metabolic adaptation and neuromuscular changes. A key point is that if we go back to being a couch potato all that good work and adaptation will disappear within a few weeks.So, in other words, hang in there, bite the bullet, get over the hump, it does get easier(but not if you give up on yourself).

The constantly varied aspect of Crossfit almost guarantees the continued occurrence of DOMS. Other athletes that repeatedly work an arm routine followed by a leg routine may numb the effect of DOMS. THere bodies get used to their routine and adapt. Crossfit has no routine and hence there is no real adaptation. We adapt to the unexpected. Our bodies continue to be challenged.

“Think about the types of CrossFit workouts that make you sore. What are they? The thing that has surprised me most about CrossFit is the degree and depth of soreness that one gets from the high repetition bodyweight workouts. I remember the first time I did the pull-ups/pushups/squats of Cindy (it wasn’t even a full Cindy – only 12 minutes). I thought I was reasonably fit, but that was close to being the most soreness I have ever experienced in my life! I was initially surprised that the heavy strength days (workouts with rep schemes like 1-1-1-1-1-1-1 or 3-3-3-3-3) while tiring, didn’t produce the same level of soreness as some of those other bodyweight workouts. So what might be the explanation?
Research has shown that faster eccentric contractions tend to cause greater strain and thus greater damage within muscle. This is why many people really notice soreness after workouts that involve explosive and/ or jumping type movements. With a high repetition bodyweight workout such as Cindy, I think the degree of soreness can probably be attributed to two things: first, the high number of total repetitions/work done (20 rounds of Cindy equates to 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups and 300 squats) and, second, the relatively high speed at which these repetitions are performed. Compare these numbers to a heavy back squat day
of 3-3-3-3-3. Yes, the tension in the muscle will be higher with the heavier weights but the total repetitions with the heavy weight are only 15 and, critically, those repetitions cannot be performed at the same speed as during an unloaded Cindy, thus resulting in potentially less intramuscular strain and thus damage.
There is also good evidence to suggest that there is a length-dependent component in the development of muscle damage. Muscles that are stressed quickly and eccentrically while simultaneously being close to their fully stretched position (think about the quads, adductors and glutes in the full squat position during wall ball for example) are more likely to become damaged than if the eccentric action occurs only during the mid-range of movement or earlier (i.e., if you fail to squat down adequately between reps). Thus CrossFit’s emphasis on quality full range movements performed at high intensity is a perfect recipe for muscle damage and repair, i.e. adaptation.”

UH! This is such great information and their is so much more. He then goes on to talk about how stretching won’t really make a difference in your DOMS. Sad, but true?!  This is not to say that you should not warm up. You should! He adds “the best form of stretching prior to explosive or powerful exercise is dynamic stretching, i.e., controlled movements that challenge a muscle’s range of motion.” THINK ANIMAL MOVEMENTS PEOPLE!!!!! There IS a method to our madness! SO THERE!

“Conclusions: Progress sensibly and don’t take long layoffs
So the bottom line, as with other things in life, is that there is no easy ticket. Muscle damage and soreness should be accepted as what it is – useful feedback from your body telling you to give the muscle(s) concerned some relative rest. Everybody has a different body and you must learn to listen to yours. As a novice or intermediate CrossFitter
your best bet is to progress gradually in your workouts in terms of weight and repetitions used. Reel in that ego: don’t ski with the experts on a double black diamond run if you are a green run skier. Also, don’t take long layoffs from CrossFit-style training. You are probably better off doing fewer WODs more consistently than overdosing on WODs and taking long breaks in between. One of the beauties of the CrossFit approach is that if you are away from your gym for a significant time it is easy to concoct workouts consisting of air squats, push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups, etc. If performed at high intensity, these will prevent your muscles from “de-adapting.” Oh, and a final word of advice: take at least 10-15 minutes to stretch after your workouts. Though this may not necessarily protect you from DOMS, the increased flexibility will make you feel better and may improve your performance.”


Also, check out our friend Andy Petranek from CFLA ( demo the “ballistic’ or dynamic loaded Dead Lift!

Andy Petranek and the Dynamic Loaded Dead Lift


Hi Heather,

thanks for the great article. So, given that the eccentric motion will damage the muscle more and produce more results, should we go slower on the eccentric portions of the exercises in which we have a low rep count (say 3-3-3-3-3)? This technique is popular in weightlifting, but I noticed in crossfit we don’t use it. We could use it, for example, on deadlifts and squats. A typical scheme is 3-0-1, where you spend 3 counts on the eccentric, 0 on the isometric part, and 1 count on the contraction.

thanks again,

Comment by Kevin Yarritu — June 6, 2011 @ 3:36 pm

Mobility WOD