Health & Wellbeing

Personal Trainers Q&A: how to combat DOMS

Man with knee doms

Delayed-onset muscle syndrome, otherwise known as DOMS, is a very common phrase in the fitness industry. Most people experience an uncomfortable tenderness 12-72 hours after a strenuous exercise session, causing the muscles to feel sore, tired and painful. 

What causes DOMS?

The truth is there isn’t particular type of exercise that triggers DOMS, any activity that places unaccustomed strain on muscles can increase the chance of soreness. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) states that DOMS “develops as a result of microscopic damage to muscle fibres involved the exercise.” Therefore, muscle soreness is part of the repair process to restore microscopic muscle damage. It’s a common misconception that a build-up of lactic acid causes DOMS, but it is actually not involved in the process. 

While DOMS is more of an inconvenience than an injury, soreness is a serious threat to your progress. Almost 40% of people admitted to skipping a workout due to muscle soreness, with nearly 50% of the people aged 25-34, our research revealed. It is hard to avoid soreness when you start a new training program, as your body simply isn’t used to it, but if it continues to persist you may want to decrease your intensity or stop doing the exercise altogether. 

Personal trainer and health food expert, Joe Sexton, recommends a preventative approach: 

“After years of trying different methods out with my clients and myself, I have come to the conclusion that the best way to recuse DOMS is to try and stop them in the first place. When you're first getting into fitness, take it easy and don't push yourself to the limit because I guarantee you're going to be walking funny for the next 2-5 days if you work too hard.”

George Choy, Personal Trainer at GymnaCity, also remarked. “When you try a new exercise, or drastically increase the volume of your exercise, DOMS tends to be worse. By gradually increasing the number of sets, reps, or the duration, from workout to workout, you can better prepare your body. DOMS also increases if you are doing a lot of eccentric only training—this is the negative / lowering portion of the movement.  For example, if you aren’t strong enough to do a push up, you can just repeatedly lower instead.” 

“The key is to exercise smart, consistently and at a level that you are continually progressing rather than regressing.” Dan Smullen, a personal trainer at the Dantry Health Club, said. “Unfortunately, the worst DOMS occur to people who have not built up a tolerance to this natural inflammation. In some ways it is a cynical reminder from your body to continue exercising consistently and not overdoing it.” 

While prevention is the key, sometimes you will experience DOMS no matter what you do. Here are what the fitness professionals do to combat tender muscles. 

Stretching exercises

Man stretching

Karrina Howe is a personal trainer, weightlifting (Olympic lifting) instructor and a nutrition coach. She believes that the stretch at the end of the exercise routine is just as important as the workout itself.

“In order to get the most out of your workout you need to cool down and stretch it out. I'm not talking about having a quick 2-minute side-to-side bend and stretch up to the sky, job done. Actually set 10-15 minutes aside for the end of your session and stretch out the muscles you have used that day; I always ensure people focus on hips and shoulders.”

Personal Trainer and founder of Oh my Quad fitness magazine, Pennie Varvarides, said, "I always make sure I spend a decent amount of time stretching after training. If I'm training alone, I'll probably spend 15 minutes at the end working through a full-body sequence, really taking my time in each move." 

Whether it’s incorporating dynamic stretches, or a simple routine of static stretches into your exercise routine, this will help to alleviate the tenderness of sore muscles.  

Epsom salts

Epsom salts in wooden bowl

Ben Greenfield was voted Personal Trainer of the Year by the National Strength and Conditioning Association in 2008, and is the author of Get Fit Guy’s Guide to Achieving Your Ideal Body. He believes the secret to reducing muscle soreness is soaking in a bath with Epsom salt, magnesium sulphate.

“If I’m sore post-workout, or after a long weekend of training, I’ll draw a bath and throw a few cups of Epsom salt in to help relax the muscle, decrease swelling and inflammation, and speed up recovery,” He said. 

Although Epsom salts are a well-known cure for muscle soreness, there is no scientific evidence that Epsom salts reduce muscle soreness. It could just be the combination of the warm water and the salts that create a more soothing atmosphere where your muscles naturally relax. Although after a particularly gruelling session, soaking in a warm bath filled with salts certainly won’t do you any harm. 

Eat well 

Feta cheese and tomatoes

Post workout nutrition is vital for progress, aim to eat a meal that includes a good balance of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats in order to feel fully restored the next day. Minor muscle tears which occur during your workout need to be repaired through protein synthesis, a process which transports amino acids and energy to your muscles to rebuild them and make them stronger.

“To try and minimise DOMs (I don't think you can really avoid it) I try to eat something with slow-release protein and fats before I go to bed. This is normally either a chunk of feta or a handful of nuts.” Pennie said. 

Slow release proteins will give your body the energy it needs to fully recover overnight while you sleep. Don't be afraid of the dark side either, foods that contain the dark colour pigment such as blueberries, cherries and black beans, are filled with anthocyanins which help to speed oxygen via the blood, reducing muscle inflammation and boosting recovery.

Foam rolling

man using foam roller on leg

Foam rolling is one of the most effective way to reduce the tenderness of DOMS. Use it to warm up muscles at the beginning of your workout, and once you’ve finished the session during cool down.

“Foam rolling is where your body applies ischemic pressure on a muscle. Similar to massage, this both relaxes the muscle, increases blood flow and signals the transport of nutrients to the muscle. All of which aids the recovery function of the muscle. Post workout foam rolling combined with a cool down can facilitate the muscle to relax, improve your flexibility, and reduce the intensity of the DOM’s in the coming days.” Dan Smullen advised.  

We’re not going to deny it; foam rolling can be painful. Carly Tierney, Personal Trainer and Finalist in PT of the year 2015, shares her tips foam rolling. 

“Foam rolling will help ease your muscles by applying deep pressure and stimulates fluid movement, which optimises the rebuilding process of your body, meaning that you can train sooner and with more intensity. “She continued, “Foam rolling hurts like hell. My tips are; spend more time on tight areas, go slow on tender spots and remember to breathe.”

Active rest

two people jogging in a park

“The worst possible thing a person can do post intense exercise, especially if they haven’t exercised for a while is to rest the next day!” Dan Smullen said.  

He continued. “An active recovery facilitates the reduction of creatine kinase in the muscle. Creatine Kinase is the physiological indication of DOM’s in your body's creatine kinase. Active recovery, ice baths, massage and self-massage have all been proven to facilitate the reduction of creatine kinase in the muscles. In other words, if you know you have done a pretty tough session in the gym, the best thing you can do the next day is exercise again. Needless to say not at the same intensity. Try either going for a walk, a light session on the bike or if you have access to a gym that has a pool to facilitate your recovery versus endure the pain!”

Mel Carpenter has over 25 years teaching experience in the Dance, Fitness and Martial Arts Industry, yet even she still suffers with muscle soreness from time to time. 

“I find that the best way to deal with DOMS is to stay active! A couple of weeks ago I had DOMS so bad, I literally had to crawl up the stairs on my hands and knees!”

She continued, “I find walking really helps, stretching regularly and basically moving whatever body parts are suffering! Soaking in a hot bath with Epsom Salts, coconut oil and lavender drops can also work wonders!”

As a Personal Trainer and Fitness Coach, Tara Whitbread also believes that its vital to keep moving even when you are suffering with muscle soreness. 

“I teach Body Combat & aerobics on Mondays, double spin on Tuesdays then have my own circuit workout in Wednesdays which is quite tough too. So Thursdays I'm sore and knackered, but force myself to attend a Pilates class I love because it's great for my core strength, but I find my DOMS are gone Friday (ready to teach aerobics again! I find a swim followed by a Jacuzzi definitely helps! Or spinning/cycling, brisk walking, or a light run.”

Ice baths 

Man taking plunge in ice bath

Once destined only for seasoned athletes, the ice bath is now becoming a favourite of many amateur gym-goers. Plunging into cold water provides light compression for the muscles, which helps to circulate blood around the body and reduce inflammation. 

However, Personal Trainer Jamie Lloyd, believes ice baths should be left to the professionals. “I think [ice baths] are a bit of over kill, in my opinion, for the average gym goer. Some studies have shown no reduction in muscle soreness post workout, and in fact have proven to increase muscle soreness. So the use of ice baths is not clearly safe and effective!” A less-extreme alternative to ice baths is having a contrast shower, by alternating between bursts of hot and cold water post workout. 

Get plenty of sleep

man waking up in white bed

Sleep is your body’s natural recovery process, if you’re getting up at the crack of dawn and losing valuable sleep you are putting your body under stress and hindering your progress.  If you’ve suddenly increased your training but haven’t altered your sleep, then this could be the cause of your DOMS. 

Karinna Howe commented on the importance of a good sleep to help repair your body.

“In order for your muscles to recover, they need time to rest and repair. This happens when you aren't working out or busy during the day, it occurs whilst you sleep. I'm not talking about a 3-hour alcohol infused coma; I'm talking about a good 8 hour non disturbed sleep allowing your body to recover from all the activity you have put it through during the day.” 

Carly Tierney also said: “Sleep is the most underrated aspect of training and recovery. Most average gym goers require 7-8 hours of sleep per night. However, hard-training strength athletes may require as much as 10 hours of sleep per night to see optimal recovery. For many people, it's extremely difficult to meet that quota. “ 

After reading this, you’ve hopefully developed a strategy to combat DOMS and reduce soreness. If it does persist, then you may want to evaluate your training plan. Amaven’s platform assesses individuals based on fitness components to generate a personalised exercise plan which focuses on your strengths and weaknesses. Contact us to find out more.