After the cautious walk down the stairs leaving the gym after a massive leg day, we’ve all experienced the love/hate cycle of performing basic tasks the day after, or even the day after the day after leg day. We’ve seen all the memes online so is it really true? Do DOMS really mean bigger muscle? Short answer is – NO. A recent article by Brad Schoenfeld from the Strength and Conditioning Journal examined exactly this idea. For the reason of our discussion on DOMS, we’re most concerned with number three, muscle damage, as there is a strong connection between DOMS and exercise-induced muscle damage. And for brevity’s sake, we’re going to simplify this explanation.
Muscle damage is a contributing factor to muscle hypertrophy, though not a necessary one (hypertrophy can still occur without it, via mechanisms one and two). However, there is a point of diminishing returns, and extreme muscle soreness can be counterproductive. First, severe soreness can significantly decrease force-producing capacity, which will be detrimental to performance in subsequent workouts. Second, motivation levels can take a hit when crippling muscle soreness hinders you. Neither of these will be beneficial for your long-term muscle building prospects. Now, we can already hear the haters protesting that they’re well accustomed to DOMS from training and that it won’t affect their motivation to train. That may be all well and good, but let’s just be clear that this isn’t a case of if you can handle it, then more will be better. On whether or not there is a causal link between DOMS and muscle hypertrophy, the authors go on “…it remains debatable as to whether DOMS is an accurate gauge of muscle damage.” So while you may think that getting sore from training means you get to tick that muscle damage box, DOMS might not necessarily be an accurate indicator of muscle damage anyway. As Schoenfeld and Contreras wrote, “So although DOMS may provide a general indication that some degree of damage to muscle tissue has occurred, it cannot be used as a definitive measure of the phenomenon.” So no, you don’t need to experience muscle soreness after a training session to build muscle, and you probably shouldn’t rely on it as an accurate indicator of productiveness.