DOMS Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness – What Can It Tell Us?

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) - What Can It Tell Us? DOMS (short for delayed onset muscle...

DOMS (short for delayed onset muscle soreness) is something we’re all quite familiar with.

Typically it occurs between 12-36 hours after the training session (hence the “delayed onset” part) and can last anywhere from 1 up to 5 days with varying degrees of intensity.

To better understand what we can and cannot glean from our DOMS, we must look at:

  1. What can initiate it from a training perspective
  2. What the cause of the soreness is
  3. How it relates to our intended training stimulus
  4. Using DOMS as a guide

What Can Cause DOMS?

There are three main ways that delayed onset muscle soreness can be stimulated;

  1. Micro-trauma to muscle tissue (mechanical damage)
  2. Oxidative stress
  3. Stress of the myelin sheath that encompasses our nerves


The first two may be things that we intentionally train to create in order to stimulate adaptations for growth or improvements in our cells’ energy production capabilities.

So how can our training cause these?

Mechanical damage occurs most readily when training a muscle in it’s lengthened range or during the eccentric portion of a rep, especially if the exercise is overloaded in the lengthened position.  This can happen with a wide range of intensities and is more likely to occur in a greater degree of fatigue.

Oxidative stress occurs when our muscles are working at a rate that surpasses our mitochondria’s ability to produce energy. This typically requires longer time under tension and working at relatively lower intensities by the end of those sets.

The third, stress on the nerves themselves, is most often a byproduct of training in lengthened ranges and not something we directly try to achieve.  It also doesn’t equate to a known adaptive response that compliments any physique or performance goals. This means that it is possible to acquire DOMS that is unrelated to a response that results in progress. Please keep this in mind for later.

All three of these have one thing in common. They all result in an inflammatory response.  So in very simplistic terms, delayed onset muscle soreness is a sign of local inflammation. The soreness you “feel” is not the actual damage but is a result of inflammatory cytokines in the tissue that results in feedback to your nervous system. Just because you don’t “feel” sore, does not necessarily mean that there was no damage created.

Side Note: Inflammation is not necessarily a bad thing!  Acute inflammation is a critical part of the body’s healing and repair process. So PLEASE avoid trying to take large doses of anti-inflammatory substances immediately after training that is designed to induce an inflammatory response. It may not only delay recovery but inhibit the growth and repair process that will lead to hypertrophy.

There is a time and place for some anti-inflammatory support, but right after training is usually not it.


What Can DOMS Tell Us About Our Training?

DOMS is not a direct marker of whether a workout was “good” or “bad”.

If you don’t get DOMS it DOES NOT automatically mean that your workout was wasted. However, we need to look at this in context of what our goal training stimulus was.

If our goal was to achieve a degree of mechanical damage and/or oxidative stress, then some degree of soreness is likely to be expected. It will vary by individual, but a good general guideline is that you should not be sore for more than 2 days. If you’re sore for 3+ days you might have overdone the volume of stimulus, or your recovery is sub-par and more effort should be spent on improving that, or perhaps nutrition is inadequate.

What if you aren’t sore at all or only slightly for less than a day?

It is still possible to have achieved mechanical damage or a degree of oxidative stress without being excessively sore if you hit the low end of your threshold for the stimulus and/or have great recoverability.  This also means that you are probably ready to progress the stimulus in your next workout a bit.

What about other training stimuli?

If you are training for pretty much any other stimulus, then your goal is to avoid excessively inflammatory training to allow yourself to train as frequently as possible.  This does not mean that you failed if you achieved any degree of DOMS, but DOMS is not the goal.

Slight soreness for a day might be ok and normal, especially if you’re taking a higher number of sets to failure or doing higher volume training. The more sets you take to failure, and depending on the ranges of motion and resistance profiles used, there will be a greater likelihood of some mechanical damage. That is just something you need to be aware of and take into consideration when planning your training split and frequency.


Using DOMS As A Guide

A very general template for making adjustments based on soreness could be:

The first time through a new workout program also might result in a higher degree of soreness if you are changing exercises due to using different motor patterns that your body is trying to coordinate. So you might be sore for 2-3 days in the first week and only 1 day afterwards through the rest of the program (even if you’re making performance progressions from week to week). So take that into consideration when evaluating your program.

Keep in mind that just because the soreness is gone does not necessarily mean that you are 100% recovered, or that you have recovered past where you were before doing the workout.  It might be another 1-3 days after that. Something to consider when planning your training frequency.



Delayed onset muscle soreness can be used as a relative indicator of the degree of inflammatory response we’ve created due to our training. It does NOT definitively mean that a particular workout was good or not, depending on what our goal stimulus was.

Duration of DOMS can potentially be used as a guide as to whether volume of a stimulus is potentially too much, but is by no means the only way to determine that. For example, performance and biomarkers (sleep, digestion, energy, etc) may be better evaluation tools in most cases.

No longer being sore does not mean you are maximally recovered and ready to train again.

You can take advantage of our programs that already have all training variables, guided progressions, and nutrition accounted for by exploring the Workout Library as well.

If you’re not sure where to start or which program to do next, check out the supporting articles linked below.


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