Anyone who has participated in training of any kind is familiar with DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). Even advanced lifters may occasionally suffer from it. What may surprise you is that it is still not fully understood in the scientific community nor can its causes be fully identified. There are a few theories, some of which are more believable, but none are 100% proven. (I may delve into these at a later date, but for now I’m looking at the effect on training and/or hypertrophy (muscle growth)).
DOMS itself can range from mild swelling stiffness around the joints involved to crippling pain where you are literally barely able to stand. It can start from immediately after a workout to a couple of days later and cast last for days – in extreme cases up to a week! Typically however it occurs 24-72 hours after a workout and lasts a day or two. To best keep it to a minimum ensure you eat enough post work-workout, drink plenty of water and get adequate rest.
You do not need DOMS to build muscle, so don’t strive to absolutely kill yourself with volume and/or reps every workout, this is madness! It will also hinder progress as you will be unable to train again for a few days due to the pain. Some trainers deliberately push their clients into soreness every workout with statements like “no pain, no gain”, and “if you don’t hurt tomorrow, you didn’t work hard enough”. All this shows is a complete lack of knowledge on their part, and generally are just trying to prove themselves as their clients may then talk about them in ways such as “so-and-so is a much better trainer than so-and-so, my legs were killing for a week”. Great! well done, you’ve done one session and now can’t do anything else for a week due to soreness! Now think about going for a 10 mile walk tomorrow (boring I know), I can guarantee if you don’t do a lot of walking you will have a level of DOMS from it. Does it take a Personal Training certificate for that? It is very easy to make someone sore after a workout, but not so easy to get them faster, stronger or lower body-fat, that is where a good trainer should stand out from the crowd.
Now I’m not saying you should avoid DOMS altogether, far from it, but you shouldn’t train specifically for it either. It can occur at random due in part to being dehydrated or not having enough rest, but it will mostly occur when you change an exercise or perform something you haven’t done before. It also tends to occur a lot with plyometric (explosive) work, but again mainly when you are new to the exercise and tends to decrease as you adapt to it. For example, I performed a Hack Squat last week for the first time and had DOMS for around 4 days, even though I increased the weight the next time I used it, my soreness was far less as I’ve started to adapt to the stresses involved.
Should you try to train with DOMS or will it make it worse? Another debate-able point. If you are too sore to train, there is little point anyway, but I would suggest some light/mild exercise as I find it helps to dissipate the soreness. However that is my experience, you may be different. One thing is for sure, in the science world, it has been proven that the recovery process can continue and even be enhanced through another workout session, so don’t get dragged into the ‘overtraining’ myth – You can’t overtrain in one workout!! Too many people have been brainwashed with the ‘you must completely recover before the next session’. I have often trained whilst sore and it has never hindered my progress. (I can also talk about CrossFit here, whilst following that I was regularly sore but still would workout the next day without ‘overtraining’). If you get prolonged or extreme soreness, however, then it is genuinely time for a break!
In short, getting DOMS after a session is a good indicator of work done, but it is not the only indicator. It should not be trained for specifically and not getting it doesn’t mean you haven’t trained hard enough. Keep adding weight to the bar and get stronger, you cannot get a better indicator for progress than being able to lift more weight for more reps.