The Fitness Zone

The Science of Soreness: Understanding Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)

Jan 18, 2024 | by Steve Irwin

It’s a new year and for a lot of us it’s time for a “New You”!

Embarking on a new fitness journey can be both exhilarating and challenging. As you push your body to new limits, you may find yourself grappling with the discomfort of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). 

This post-exercise pain, often characterised by stiffness and tenderness in muscles, is a common companion for fitness enthusiasts!

So let’s look into the science behind DOMS, explore its causes, discuss effective recovery strategies, and provide exercise considerations to minimise this post-workout soreness as you kick off 2024 ready to smash your fitness goals.

What is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)?

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS, is the pain and stiffness felt in muscles several hours to days after engaging in strenuous physical activity, particularly exercises that your body isn’t accustomed to or that involve eccentric muscle contractions. Eccentric contractions occur when muscles lengthen under tension, such as during the lowering phase of a bicep curl or when descending stairs.

DOMS is a result of microscopic damage to muscle fibres and the connective tissue surrounding them. This damage triggers an inflammatory response as the body works to repair and rebuild the affected tissues. As a result, pain receptors are activated, causing the characteristic soreness associated with DOMS. [1]

Causes of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

Understanding the causes of DOMS is essential for devising strategies to manage and prevent it. Three key factors contribute to the development of DOMS:

  1. Microscopic Muscle Damage:

During unaccustomed or intense exercise, particularly with eccentric movements, muscle fibres experience microscopic tears and damage. This damage initiates the inflammatory process, leading to the characteristic soreness of DOMS.

  1. Inflammation and Swelling:

The body responds to muscle damage by releasing inflammatory mediators to initiate the healing process. This inflammatory response can lead to localised swelling and increased pressure within the muscle, contributing to the sensation of pain and stiffness.

  1. Lactic Acid Buildup (Debunking the Myth):

Contrary to popular belief, the buildup of lactic acid is not a primary contributor to DOMS. Lactic acid is produced during intense exercise, but it is typically cleared from the muscles within hours. [2] The soreness associated with DOMS is more closely linked to the inflammatory response and microscopic muscle damage.

Recovering from Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

While DOMS is an inevitable part of pushing your body to new limits, there are effective strategies to promote recovery and alleviate the associated discomfort. Consider incorporating the following practices into your post-exercise routine:

  • Active Recovery:

Engage in light, low-impact activities to promote blood flow and enhance circulation to the affected muscles. Activities like walking, cycling, or swimming can aid in flushing out metabolic byproducts and delivering nutrients to the muscles for optimal recovery.

  • Hydration and Nutrition:

Proper hydration is crucial for facilitating the body’s natural healing processes. Additionally, maintaining a balanced diet that includes an adequate intake of protein, carbohydrates, and essential nutrients supports muscle repair and reduces the duration and intensity of DOMS.

  • Rest and Sleep:

Allow your body sufficient time to rest and recover. Adequate sleep is particularly important, as the majority of muscle repair and growth occurs during deep sleep. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night to optimise recovery.

  • Massage and Foam Rolling:

Incorporate self-myofascial release techniques through massage or foam rolling. These practices can help alleviate muscle tightness, reduce inflammation, and improve flexibility. Pay special attention to the muscles most affected by DOMS.

The New Kids on the Block… Hot and Cold Therapy: The Dynamic Duo in DOMS Recovery

Hot and Cold therapy for recovery is starting to gain momentum within the fitness industry. The strategic use of hot and cold therapy emerges as a dynamic duo in the realm of recovery. [3]

Cold Therapy: The Ice Bath Revelation

Cold therapy, also known as cryotherapy, involves exposing the body to cold temperatures to promote healing and reduce inflammation. One popular and effective method of cold therapy is the ice bath, a practice embraced by athletes and fitness enthusiasts alike.

The application of cold therapy immediately post-exercise can constrict blood vessels, reducing blood flow to the affected muscles. This vasoconstriction helps limit the inflammatory response and decreases the severity of DOMS. Furthermore, cold therapy has been shown to numb nerve endings temporarily, providing immediate relief from pain and discomfort.

For those willing to brave the chill, an ice bath offers a comprehensive approach to recovery. Immersing yourself in cold water (10-15 degrees Celsius) for 10-15 minutes immediately after an intense workout can yield substantial benefits. The cold immersion serves as a reset button for your muscles, aiding in the prevention of excessive inflammation and mitigating the onset and intensity of DOMS.

Heat Therapy: Unwinding Muscles with Warmth

On the flip side of the recovery spectrum is heat therapy, which involves applying heat to the body to increase blood flow, relax muscles, and alleviate stiffness. While cold therapy is best applied immediately post-exercise, heat therapy is particularly beneficial during the recovery phase, helping to soothe sore muscles and enhance flexibility.

Warm Baths and Heating Pads: A Warm Embrace for Muscles

Indulging in a warm bath after a workout can be a luxurious yet effective way to combat DOMS. The warmth helps to dilate blood vessels, promoting increased blood flow to the recovering muscles. This enhanced circulation facilitates the removal of metabolic waste products and delivers essential nutrients, expediting the healing process.

In addition to warm baths, heating pads can be strategically applied to specific muscle groups. The targeted application of heat aids in muscle relaxation, reducing muscle spasms and promoting a more rapid recovery. Whether it’s the comforting heat of a bath or the localised warmth of a heating pad, incorporating heat therapy into your recovery routine can significantly contribute to minimising DOMS.

Combining Hot and Cold: The Contrast Bath Technique

For a comprehensive approach to DOMS recovery, consider combining the benefits of hot and cold therapy through the contrast bath technique. This involves alternating between cold and hot water immersion, creating a pump-like effect on blood vessels.

Begin with 3-5 minutes of cold water immersion, followed by 3-5 minutes of warm water. Repeat this cycle for a total of 15-20 minutes. The alternating temperatures stimulate blood flow, promoting the removal of waste products and delivering fresh nutrients to the recovering muscles.

Caution and Considerations:

While hot and cold therapy can be powerful tools in the battle against DOMS, it’s crucial to exercise caution and consider individual preferences and sensitivities. Individuals with conditions like Raynaud’s disease or cardiovascular issues should consult with healthcare professionals before incorporating extreme temperature therapies.

Exercise Considerations to Minimise Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

Preventing or minimising DOMS requires a thoughtful approach to your exercise routine. Consider the following factors when starting a new workout program:

  1. Gradual Progression:

Avoid the temptation to dive headfirst into an intense workout regimen. Gradually progress in terms of intensity, duration, and complexity to allow your muscles to adapt and minimise the risk of excessive damage.

  1. Warm-Up and Cool Down:

Prioritise a thorough warm-up before engaging in strenuous exercise. A dynamic warm-up increases blood flow, elevates muscle temperature, and prepares your body for the demands of the workout. Additionally, conclude your session with a proper cool down to aid in the removal of metabolic byproducts.

  1. Proper Technique:

Ensure you are using proper form and technique during exercises. Poor form can contribute to unnecessary strain on muscles, increasing the likelihood of microtears and DOMS. Consider seeking guidance from a fitness professional to master correct techniques.

  1. Incorporate Eccentric Training Gradually:

Eccentric exercises are a common trigger for DOMS. While these movements are essential for strength and muscle development, introduce them gradually into your routine. Allow your muscles time to adapt to the unique demands of eccentric contractions.

  1. Active Stretching:

Include dynamic stretches in your warm-up and cool-down routines. Active stretching can enhance flexibility, improve range of motion, and reduce muscle stiffness, all of which contribute to minimising DOMS.


Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is a natural consequence of challenging your body and pushing beyond its familiar limits. Understanding the science behind DOMS empowers you to navigate this discomfort more effectively. By implementing strategic recovery techniques and considering exercise factors that contribute to DOMS, you can optimise your fitness journey and minimise post-workout soreness. Embrace the journey, listen to your body, and celebrate the growth that comes with each challenge.

Please Note: The information provided in this article are the opinions and professional experience of the author and not all activities are recommended for the beginner or participants with underlying health conditions. Before following any advice or starting any fitness, health and wellbeing journey please consult with an Allied Health Professional and / or General Practitioner.


  1. Muscle soreness and delayed-onset muscle soreness
  2. Why Does Lactic Acid Build Up in Muscles?
  3. Heat and cold therapy reduce pain in patients with delayed onset muscle soreness
Steve Irwin

Steve Irwin

Steve has spent the last 19 years in the Australian Fitness Industry as a Group Fitness Instructor, 1-1 Coach, State Manager, Business Owner and is currently an Educator for the Australian Institute of Fitness. A lifelong fitness enthusiast he started his working life in the Military which guided him into the fitness industry where his passion for helping others on their health and fitness journey has been realised. Steve believes that for anyone thinking about getting fit or healthy they should “just get started” as “doing something is better than doing nothing”.

Read more articles

View all articles

Disclaimer: Where Certificate III in Fitness, Cert III/Cert 3, or Fitness Coach is mentioned, it refers to SIS30321 Certificate III in Fitness. Where Certificate IV in Fitness, Cert IV/Cert 4, or Personal Trainer is mentioned, it refers to SIS40221 Certificate IV in Fitness. Where Master Trainer Program™ is mentioned, it refers to Fitness Essentials and SIS40221 Certificate IV in Fitness. Where Master Trainer Plus+ Program™ is mentioned, it refers to SIS30321 Certificate III in Fitness and SIS40221 Certificate IV in Fitness. Where Certificate IV in Massage or Cert IV/Cert 4 is mentioned, it refers to HLT42021 Certificate IV in Massage Therapy. Where Diploma of Remedial Massage is mentioned, it refers to HLT52021 Diploma of Remedial Massage.

Download the Guide 👇

Diploma of Master Personal Trainer Course Guide

Download the Guide 👇

Diploma of Remedial Massage Course Guide

Download the Guide 👇

Complete Nutritionist Course Guide

Book a call below 👇