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There aren’t many ways to gauge the quality of a workout. Sure, if you achieve a new personal best on a given exercise, you know you’ve been doing something right. But after years of training, particularly for bodybuilders, the goal is not always to push our max lifts higher and higher. So how do we tell if a workout really “worked”? Most of us, including myself, usually look for muscle soreness a day or two after a workout. We call this delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). The pain and stiffness usually increase in the hours after a workout and then peak around 24–48 hours later. In most cases it subsides and is gone within six to seven days. DOMS is the least ambiguous sign we have to use as a gauge. Unfortunately, if you’ve been training consistently for a few years, you don’t get sore after most workouts. This can be discouraging to a lot of people and often leads them to do unnecessary (if not ridiculous) things in order to try to develop DOMS after a workout. But is this really necessary? Is DOMS an accurate indicator of the effectiveness of a workout?
To answer this question, we need to take into consideration what actually causes DOMS and ask ourselves if it’s even plausible that it may indicate when growth is going to happen as a result of our workout. DOMS is known to occur most often after an unaccustomed workout or when the intensity is much higher than what one is accustomed to. It is believed that this type of workout causes microscopic muscle damage and the infiltration of immune cells. This, along with the secretion of myokines, sensitizes the nerves running through the tissue. The result of all this is a dull ache in the muscle in the days after training. So there is a theoretical connection between muscle damage and DOMS, yet when people are evaluated for muscle soreness there is poor correlation between actual markers of muscle damage and what they report as far as DOMS. This calls into question the logic that if I feel sore, I know I’ve caused microtrauma in the muscle and triggered growth.
So is there at least a connection between muscle damage and growth? Yes. But it is not a required element. It is facultative at best. Muscle damage is known to activate satellite cells, which are very important to muscle growth. The type of loads known to lead to muscle damage also activate mechanotransductive anabolic pathways regardless of whether damage is actually inflicted on the cell. Nevertheless, damage is not required for this activation, as metabolic stress in the tissue can also activate them.
In the end, what we have are two independent outcomes of a potentially anabolic workout. DOMS may or may not result and is not always the sign of significant microtrauma. In addition, significant microtrauma is not always necessary for an anabolic response. Growth can occur with or without significant microtrauma and with or without DOMS. Does that mean I will no longer associate DOMS with an effective workout? Probably not, but I will also not be so discouraged if I’m not always sore after giving it my all in the gym.