This is what exercise professionals call delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS usually hits you 24 to 48 hours after exercise and can last several days in the more extreme cases (1).
It tends to happen if you’re new to resistance exercise, had a prolonged layoff from the exercise, or made significant changes to the exercises and/or intensities you use from one session to the next.
This article is more about addressing the first two scenarios – you’re new to exercise or had a long layoff.
Sufficiently bad DOMS can put you right off ever trying it again. Even if you decide to try it again, bad DOMS will probably make you wait a few extra days before coming back.
Exercise is extremely beneficial to health, but, as discussed in previous blogs, many of its health benefits only last hours to a few days after the exercise, so how frequently you exercise matters.
You want time to recover and for your body to adapt, but you probably also want maximum benefit, so doing a little often is a good approach.
Reducing DOMS starts by knowing what kinds of activities cause it, specifically what types of muscle contractions.
Types of muscle contractions
We move when muscles shorten/contract to create movement around a joint. Muscles don’t push, they only pull. Of course the result of the right muscles pulling will cause us to push.
To understand how to minimise DOMS while still benefiting from exercise, we need to understand the main types of muscle contraction because one type is mostly responsible for DOMS.
Classic resistance training involves either moving an object through space or moving yourself through space repeatedly. This involves concentric and eccentric muscle contractions.
Concentric contractions are when the muscle shortens against a load, be that load in the form of something external or your bodyweight.
Eccentric contractions are when the muscle lengthens, but is still resisting the load.
Let’s look at some familiar exercises in terms of the concentric and eccentric part.
Squatting – when you lower yourself down, e.g. to sit in a chair, this is the eccentric contraction because muscles in your thighs and around your hips are lengthening against resistance. The resistance in this case is your bodyweight and anything else you might be carrying.
Now imagine if those same muscles just relaxed completely, you’d hit the chair pretty hard. Instead, the muscles lengthen in a controlled manner – eccentric contraction.
Getting back up involves shortening those same muscles, so this is the concentric contraction.
The technical term isn’t that important, but the concept is because it’s the eccentric, i.e. lengthening under load, contraction that contributes most to DOMS (2).
So let’s take another example that you’re unlikely to do when starting up exercise, but that should be familiar to most people – the chin/pull up.
You might wonder what happens when you just hold something, without shortening or lengthening muscles – this type on contraction in which the muscle neither lengthen nor shorten but do exert a force is called an isometric contraction.
An example of an isometric contraction most people use multiple times a day would be holding onto something. Taking the chin/pull up example, your forearm muscles involved in gripping would be undergoing an isometric contraction to help you hold on throughout the movement.
Hopefully that’s all starting to make sense, and you’re beginning to see possibilities for using different types of contractions.
Just one final example though. Have you ever noticed how a day or two after walking a long distance downhill, you get sore legs? That’s because the muscles of your thighs were constantly having to decelerate you, i.e. undergo lots of eccentric contractions.
Walking up hill feels harder, but if you didn’t walk back down, you’d have less DOMS afterwards.
Removing Eccentric Contractions
To reduce DOMS, reduce/remove the eccentric contractions.
Weightlifters do it by dropping the weight. But if you’re reading this, then you're probably not a seasoned weightlifter, so for safeties sake I’d recommend not dropping weights.
A safer option is to use a sled as shown in the videos below. You can easily make one by nailing an old car tire on a wooden board. With some straps and handles you can mimic many of the exercises you might associate with dumbbells or cable machines.
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These videos are just a few examples. You’ll get more out of it if you have a longer path so you can do more repetitions without having to reset, but this is the space I had to work with. This is also something you may be able to do outside depending on your circumstances.
Another approach is to use cardio machines, especially stationary bikes and rowing machines. The circular motion of pedalling means that you are really just using concentric contractions.
On the rower, you only need strength for the pulling/concentric part, so again there is minimal eccentric work.
This article is about resistance training though, so you’ll need to change the resistance and pace to make these machines work for you.
On the stationary bike you’ll need to set the resistance so that you really have to push hard to grind out perhaps 30-40 revolutions per minute. Go for a minute or so at a time.
The rower is less versatile with the resistance, so you’ll need to pull with speed and treat it like weight training exercise – pull as hard as you can, pause for a second, then repeat for 15-20 repetitions.
Make sure you are well warmed up first, and that someone who knows what their doing has shown you good rowing technique.
Reducing Eccentric Contractions
Aside from trying to eliminate the eccentric contraction entirely, you can simply not emphasise them.
For example, some instructors and coaches suggest that you do the concentric contraction quickly and then slow the eccentric contraction right down.
That has it’s place, but when you’re just (re)starting out, do both in a controlled manner, but only as slowly as you need to to feel in control of the exercise/weight.
If you are at a gym with the right equipment you can also use a reverse-band set-up. See the videos below for some example.
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You could do away with movement all-together and just get into a position and hold it for 10–30 seconds.
Classic examples of isometric exercise would be planks and wall-sits. These examples aside, any time you hold a static position is an isometric exercise.
Eccentric contractions are fairly potent for building strength and muscle, so I’m not suggesting you do away with these entirely.
Instead, reduce the amount eccentric work you do when you’re just starting out. After a few sessions add in a little more eccentric work, and build up from their.
You can also use the exercises suggested as a means to increase the amount of work you do without having to increase your rest between sessions.
Frequency is a great ally for getting you results fast, and work with sleds or on a bike or rower will let you exercise more frequently and more intensely without some of the associate discomfort or fatigue.
Lastly, start any exercise programme gently, and after getting the ok from your doctor. Use less weight than you’re capable of and do fewer repetitions at first.
This advice is even more true if you used to be athletic in the distant past, or even in the more recent past if your layoff was due to serious injury or illness. Over enthusiasm can be almost as detrimental as too little enthusiasm.
Build up over time so that you stay motivated and relatively pain free.
Next post will be the start a new series on effective exercise for health.
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1. Lewis, P. B., Ruby, D. & Bush-Joseph, C. A. Muscle soreness and delayed-onset muscle soreness. Clin Sports Med 31, 255–262 (2012).
2. Newham, D. J. The consequences of eccentric contractions and their relationship to delayed onset muscle pain. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol 57, 353–359 (1988).