Does Muscle Soreness Mean You’ve Had an Effective Workout?

muscle soreness
If you’ve pushed yourself in a training session, you may find yourself barely able to move about 6-8 hours after you’ve stopped your activity. Gym buffs call this DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). It can last for 72 hours and the amount of time you suffer from it can really vary. You’ll feel DOMS the most after you’ve introduced something new to your workout or are new to exercising completely.
Muscle soreness is just one of the symptoms of DOMS, you may also experience joint stiffness, a reduced range of motion, swelling and tenderness and you could feel some weakness. DOMS does not appear while you’re working out, so be mindful about any acute pain you experience when you’re exercising.
Muscle soreness after a workout can help us feel really good, and some of us use it as a badge of honor, or evidence that our bootcamp classes must be working. But what is DOMS and does getting it mean we’ve achieved something? Is it something that we should be aiming for in our workouts? Does it mean we’ve hurt ourselves, or that we’re weak and unfit?
Here are some myths about DOMS that could cause confusion for people who exercise.

DOMS is caused by lactic acid

Lactic acid builds up whilst you are training and the pain that causes usually goes away within an hour of stopping exercise. DOMS is caused my micro-traumas to your muscles, not lactic acid. Lactic acid goes away in cool down periods, DOMS wont.

Only unfit people get DOMS

DOMS has nothing to do with fitness, it’s only a sign that your muscles have experienced microtraumas. This could be due to a few different reasons. Whether or not you get DOMS is really dependent on;

  • The type of exercise you do, weight lifting may affect you more than swimming for example. Eccentric contractions (controlled elongations) cause DOMS more than concentric contractions (such as a bicep curl).
  • How new you are to this exercise. Is this group of muscles not used to being worked?
  • How susceptible you are to DOMS, some people are very sensitive to it, some people hardly get it no matter what they do. It’s genetics.
  • Whether or not your body is under stress, for example you could be dehydrated or suffering from poor sleep.

Just because your experiencing DOMS, does’t mean that you’re unfit and need to push yourself even harder.

DOMS means you’ve hurt yourself


Whilst your muscles are sore because they have experienced micro traumas, that’s not really a bad thing. Your muscles work on repairing the tiny tears and replace the tissue with new, stronger and healthier muscle fibres. When you exercise, you stimulate muscle production and growth. DOMS is not an injury.

Stretching will help you avoid DOMS

A report in the Cochrane Database details how stretching pre and post work out did not have a significant impact on DOMS. When we warm up before exercise, we do this to prevent injury, and we do cool down exercises to stop lactic acid pooling in our muscles and making us achy right after a workout. Warming up and cooling down exercises do not necessarily have to include stretching and should be tailored to whatever exercise it is that you’re doing.

No pain, no gain.

With so many memes about DOMS going around on the internet, you’d be forgiven for thinking this would be something you should aim for after every gym session and that if you don’t get DOMS you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough.
working out
But getting DOMS is really not a good indicator of whether or not your workout has been successful. You shouldn’t be judging your exercise routine or personal trainer by how sore they make you. Getting DOMS isn’t necessarily a good sign or a bad sign, it just means that you feel sore.
There is still benefit to exercising if you did not get DOMS. When exercising it’s fine to push yourself to achieve faster speeds, higher weights, longer distances or more complex movements. Pushing yourself to achieve more pain is just dangerous. You could be experiencing DOMS after every workout, but not be reaching the targets you’ve set yourself like increased fitness, a more toned body, better skill or better health. Keep an eye on your goals, not how sore you are.

If you are experiencing DOMS, you need protein shakes.

If you’re a professional body builder or athlete and are training all day then yes, protein shakes may be useful to you. But for most people they are unnecessary. Protein is an important part of anyone’s diet, if you are training then you might wish to include extra protein in your diet through consuming more lean meat, tofu or pulses. If you are exercising to get in shape or lose weight then remember, protein shakes are a lot of extra calories that you don’t necessarily need. Protein shakes are usually used for people wanting to gain weight, or for people who are using them as meal replacements to lose weight. You will be able to repair your muscles from DOMS without protein shakes and protein supplements if your diet is healthy.

It’s fine to go back to working out with bad DOMS

DOMS can limit your range of movement. When your movement is restricted but you try and complete an action, your body may resort to using different muscles or an alternative movement causing injury. When exercising it’s important you are moving in the right way.
DOMS can also cause muscle weakness which means that you may struggle to train anyway.
When you want to reduce the symptoms of DOMS, you could try these community recommended remedies;

  • Sleep
  • A hot tub or Jacuzzi
  • A sports massage
  • A bath with Epsom Salts
  • Drinking plenty of water


Is it DOMS or an injury?

DOMS can feel so bad, that you have trouble standing. But how do you tell the difference between DOMS and an injury? Here are some warning signs that you may be injured:

  • Your pain has lasted longer than 4 days.
  • You started to feel the pain while working out or training, DOMS usually appears the next day.
  • You experience heavy swelling in an area.
  • If you’re feeling sharper or more intense pains in one area and you feel like something is wrong.

Got A Question?

The Author

Lewis Payne

Lewis graduated from The University of Nottingham in 2013 with a First Class Honours in Physiotherapy, worked as Sheffield F.C.’s first team Physiotherapist, and now runs a leading-edge private clinic in Sheffield. With over ten years of experience, he specialises in manual therapy, advanced technological treatments, and exercise-based approaches, focusing on spinal and joint conditions, sports injuries, and specifically complex spinal issues like disc pathology and scoliosis. Lewis leads in IDD Therapy, performing over 6000 treatments, offers MRI referrals and reviews, and employs a holistic treatment philosophy viewing the body as a Tensegrity structure. He excels in postural analysis, soft tissue release techniques, and prescribes biomechanical corrective exercises to enhance natural movement.