Delayed onset muscle soreness: what causes it, how to treat it, and how to prevent it (text beside image of woman's abdomen with her arms holding her side)

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS): What It Is And What to Do About It

exercise Nov 12, 2021

How many times have you had a really solid workout and found that you can barely walk a day or two later? Do you find that you have so much muscle soreness that you're walking like Bambi and are grabbing anything within reach for support when you go to sit down?

That's Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), and you aren't alone. Many people experience these DOMS symptoms after an intense workout or starting a new exercise program.

In this blog post, I will answer a few of your burning questions about post-workout muscle soreness, including what causes delayed onset muscle soreness and how to relieve it.



What is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)?

DOMS is a phenomenon in which muscle pain or stiffness develops a day or two after exercise. While it is most common in people who have just started exercising, it can happen to anyone who has increased the duration or intensity of a workout routine.

Muscle soreness is a normal response to unusual exertion and is part of an adaptation process by which the muscles recover as they hypertrophy (an increase in muscle size).

The soreness you're experiencing is because you made your muscles work harder than they're used to or you worked them in a new way. Even elite athletes can experience sore muscles when they amp up their workouts or transition to something new. 

What Causes Sore Muscles After a Workout?

Delayed onset muscle soreness is related to increased stress in muscle fibers as you excessively exert them. DOMS can also occur if you do movements your muscles aren’t used to, such as lifting heavier or adding new exercises to your fitness routine.

Workouts that focus on eccentric exercises are especially likely to cause DOMS because you're bearing a load against gravity for an extended time. This extra time under tension means the movement causes more stress on the muscle.

Eccentric exercise is beneficial for overall muscle growth and strength gains, and just because it is more likely to result in DOMS doesn’t mean you should avoid it. 

Delayed onset muscle soreness sets in because of the tiny muscle tears that happen when a muscle is stressed more than it's used to or in a new way. The muscle tissue releases enzymes to help with muscle repair, which results in inflammation and soreness. 

And don't worry about those muscle tears; they are not serious muscle damage. These tiny tears are perfectly normal and a good thing! That's how your muscles grow!

Important note: DOMS is not to be confused with muscle pain experienced during exercise or pain related to a sprain or strain! There is a difference between muscle soreness after strenuous exercise and serious muscle damage from overworking yourself or moving improperly.

You'll usually feel the pain from an injury right away, whereas delayed onset muscle soreness will take a day or two to flare up. If you feel like you pulled or strained something, you may want to ease off from your current movement to avoid further injury.

How Do You Fix DOMS?

There is no one simple way to treat DOMS. In the end, personal experience will dictate which works best for an individual, but I will share a few treatment strategies that the KJO coaches and our clients have found helpful to reduce muscle soreness after a workout.

Active Recovery

Active recovery is a method that involves using low-impact aerobic exercise immediately after a workout to increase the blood flow to overworked muscles. The increased blood supply from the light exercise may also help relieve the inflammatory response in your sore muscles.

Examples of active recovery include using a foam roller or lacrosse ball for self-myofascial release, gentle yoga, walking, or swimming.

Find what's most enjoyable and what works best for you by trying different methods.

Sports Massage

A sports massage can increase blood flow to the muscles and may lessen the severity of stiffness and swelling. Be prepared that you'll feel more sore than when you go in for a relaxing massage, but the benefits will be worth it. 

A massage therapist will help reduce the tightness of the sore muscles. Your muscles will see an increase in blood flow, oxygen, and nutrients, all of which will help to reduce swelling and soreness.

Obviously, I'm not saying you need a massage after every intense workout to prevent soreness, but if you have a particularly grueling workout or feel intense soreness afterward, a massage will help relieve pain.

Epsom Salts

Taking a warm bath with a few handfuls of Epsom salts may reduce the length and intensity of the DOMS. Epsom salts are rich in magnesium, which is important for helping muscles heal. 

Magnesium is a natural anti-inflammatory, which makes it a great supplement for the relief of muscle soreness, whether you get it through an Epsom salt bath or take an actual supplement.

How to Prevent Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

Muscle soreness is common, but that doesn't mean you can't prevent it. Here are some tips to prevent experiencing DOMS in the first place.

Warm Up Before Your Workout

Make sure to start your workout correctly. One of the reasons why overexertion occurs is because your muscles are tight before you start training. If they are not adequately warmed up and you move straight into exercise, your muscles are less able to stretch and can become injured, sometimes seriously.

Before you get into your workout, spend a few minutes doing some active stretches and light movements to warm up your muscles and loosen them up. If you have access to a heated room, like a hot yoga room in your gym, go there for your pre-workout warmup. 

Spending just 5–10 minutes warming up your muscles before a workout increases blood flow and can make a significant difference in your performance and how your body heals after your workout.

Slowly Increase Your Weights

At KJO Coaching, we like to follow the 10% rule when it comes to strength training.

We recommend that you increase your activity by no more than 10 percent per week. This includes the distance you run, row, or bike ride; the intensity of your workout; and the length of time you exercise.

In other words, don't think you can go from running around your block to running a marathon in a week. Increasing the intensity of any workout too quickly is a recipe for injury.

While you may want to build muscle fast, taking the slow and steady route prevents injury and can lead you to your goal faster.

Is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness OK?

While you should put some effort into preventing DOMS, don't worry about it too much if it happens! The soreness will go away in a couple of days, and you'll be good as new. 

And in case you were wondering, yes, you absolutely can (and should) work out even if you're experiencing DOMS. Just reassess how hard you're going and if you've been pushing yourself too much. Slow it down and be patient. Your body will thank you for it!

As your muscles repair and you continue to use them, they will get stronger and stronger. If you keep going, you'll find that your muscles don't feel nearly as fatigued at the point where your muscle soreness peaks today.

It's possible that your current workout program is too intense for you, which may lead to damaged muscles and injury. If you want a free, well-designed exercise plan, I've got you covered!

Check out this free 4-week workout guide written by a fitness coach who has helped hundreds of people learn how to exercise according to their fitness goals (without injury!). The guide includes workouts as well as videos and important terminology that will help you make the most of the guide and your future training sessions.

Click here for your free guide!

And if you're ready to work 1:1 with a stellar coach who can help you achieve your goals without burning yourself out, learn more about our stellar team at KJO Coaching. We specialize in helping busy women prioritize themselves to improve their health and reach their fitness and wellness goals.

We'd love to help you on your journey, whether you're looking to lose fat, build muscle, or learn how to maintain the fitness progress you've already made. Learn more here.

Connect with us!

Email: [email protected] 

IG: @kjocoaching @coachkaseyjo

Hi, I'm Kasey!

I coach, mentor, write, and teach with one main focus: Build strong bodies and healthy lifestyles, starting with your mindset.


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