How to deal with muscle soreness

The feeling of extreme muscle soreness for days after a workout is all too familiar to my personal training clients. My introductory training sessions usually leave trainees walking down stairs gingerly to say the least. Muscle soreness or DOMs (delayed onset muscle soreness) as it’s now most commonly known, is problematic for all weight trainers. A little soreness is great, you know you’ve worked that muscle adequately. It’s a good feeling, a sign of progression. However, when the soreness is so severe you can’t train that muscle again when you are scheduled to, your plan falls to pieces and often so do your gains. Various methods and supplements have been suggested to enhance recovery and decrease the duration of DOMs. Some of these strategies have a body of scientific evidence behind them and others are just weight room hearsay. To know how to solve this issue we first have to understand what we are dealing with. So what actually causes DOMs? To use its correct name, exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD) can be divided into two categories; metabolic damage and structural damage.

Metabolic damage

This is the most common form of EIMD and is a result of the accumulation of intramuscular enzymes and minerals. I’m sure everyone reading this is familiar with creatine. Put simply, creatine is stored in your muscles and is used by the predominate energy system used during weight training. When this chemical reaction occurs the by-product is an enzyme known as creatine kinase (CK). Without boring everyone to death with biochemistry, this CK is left in the muscle after weight training. Other enzymes such as lactate dehydrogenase and minerals such as calcium are also left in the muscle after muscle contraction. This explains some of the swelling that occurs with the DOMs. Metabolic damage is not as severe as structural damage and will not alter muscle function to the degree structural damage does. Put simply it will not decrease your strength or reduce your coordination like structural damage will.

Structural damage

Structural damage of exercise induced muscle damage is a lot more painful than metabolic damage. This is the kind of muscle damage you get from heavy eccentric movements. For example, an eccentric only (lowering under a 10 second tempo each rep) chin up. My personal training clients are all too familiar with the soreness associated with this movement! At a cellular level structural damage is the over stretching of muscle fibres resulting in micro-tears in the structure of the tissue. The loss of strength and function is much more pronounced after structural damage compared to metabolic damage.

Methods to deal with EIMD

Post-workout shake

Your muscle are organic organisms in a constant cycle of catabolism (the breakdown of tissue) and anabolism (the building of tissue). When you weight train the initial response in the muscle is catabolic. In order to rebuild the broken down muscle fibres the body needs amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of muscle tissue. Your post workout shake is the fastest way to reverse the catabolic state caused by weight training, allowing your muscle to rebuild stronger than it was before. The liquid format of protein shakes do not have to be broken down by the digestive system and the Amino acids are delivered directly to the muscle. Whey hydrolysate is the fastest absorbed format of whey protein and should be the staple ingredient of your PWO.


The branched chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine) are essential amino acids so named because of their structure. Leucine plays a key role in muscle restoration and formation of other conditionally essential amino acids. Some studies have shown that pre workout supplementation of BCAAs can reduce the subjective soreness of DOMs and also reduce the build up of intramuscular enzymes associated with metabolic damage. World renowned strength coach Charles Poliquin recommends taking them during your workout. This may be a bit excessive for some trainees as it does involve popping 30-40 capsules during your workout! It’s not for everyone but it can help reduce metabolic damage.

Active recovery

Active recovery was a technique first used by soviet athletes to enhance recovery after gruelling training sessions. It involves long resistance-less cardio sessions performed immediately after weight training. Active recovery sessions last a minimum of 45 minutes, so not exactly time efficient. The theory is that the blood flow stimulates the removal of the calcium and intramuscular enzymes left on the muscle after training. Personally speaking I seem to have so little free time I find active recovery a nice idea but not practical from a time standpoint. Still if you’re a professional athlete training is your job so try it out.

Not attempting to deal with severe EIMD could be a mistake. Sticking to your training schedule is essential to consistently make gains in the gym. One thing trainees need to realise is that EIMD will always be most pronounced after a new routine with new movements. As you become used to the routine the soreness will become less severe (repeated bout effect). Although several theories have been proposed to explain this “repeated bout effect,” there is no general agreement as to its cause. Try the 3 techniques outlined below for yourself:

Protocol 1

Muscle recovery post workout shake*

50g whey hydrolysate

10g glutamine

2000mg vitamin C

*Dosages recommended are based on a 90kg male.

Protocol 2

BCAAs during a workout

30g of BCAAs taken during a workout

6g split across 5 dosages

Protocol 3

Active recovery

45 minutes stationary cycling

Very light resistance

Do this after a lower body workout only.

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