No Pain, No Gain? Why Are My Muscles Hurting After Exercise?

No Pain, No Gain? Why Are My Muscles Hurting After Exercise? - Leading Edge Physiotherapy

Have you ever wondered why your muscles get sore, stiff or painful a day or two after you do an exercise session, be it in the gym, after a class or after that first run after the Christmas break?

This widely experienced phenomenon is what we as allied health professionals refer to as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or commonly known as DOMS.

DOMS is most notably experienced after beginning a new exercise program, rapidly altering or upping the work load or pushing the body to the extreme, and for the novice, it can be a quite uncomfortable and off putting outcome of exercise.

However, even though it is painful and can leave you cringing when you even look at a set of dumbbells, it is a very normal physiological response that every gym goer will experience at some stage.

Although it may feel like an injury, the painful outcome is just the product of the process which is an important adaptation that occurs in the muscles that eventually shows up the improvements that you want to see such as strength, size and endurance gains.


There has been some confusion surrounding the actual cause of DOMS, but research has identified that it has a lot to do with microtears in the muscles.

These tears are not like a muscle tear that you see an AFL footballer go down with that results in weeks out of action – it is instead a series of microscopic tears that are dependant on the amount, duration, type and intensity of your workout.

Most commonly, an eccentric contraction of the muscle is responsible for the micotear.  Eccentric contractions are where the muscle contracts forcefully while it is lengthening (think lowering the weight from a bicep curl).

When these microtears occur, the body responds with an inflammatory reaction and you may experience minor swelling, pain, limited freedom of movement and stiffness that usually peaks about 24-48 hours after your workout.

This may sound bad, but at the same time the muscles also send a message up to the brain to say that they are not quite strong enough to cope with that level of activity. This then stimulates chemical reactions in the muscles which cause adaptations that allow you to do the same workout next time more easily and be no where near as sore the next day.


The wonderful thing about DOMS is that it usually subsides within 2-7 days. Listed below is our Top 9 Tips that you can do that may help you get over DOMS that little bit quicker.

Unfortunately there is no instant cure, however, the ideas below have been found useful in managing your muscle soreness. So have a try at some of these and see which ones work for you.

1. Warm Up:
Doing a good active warmup before each session has been linked with decreasing the severity of DOMS. So make sure you get that heart rate and sweat up before you start your big session.

Foam Roller

2. Foam Rolling
Using a foam roller after your session may assist the recovery of the muscles. 

3. Active Recovery
A 5-10 minute active warm down after your exercise session can help the body remove waste products from the muscles and improve blood flow and circulation. This may include a low intensity aerobic activity such as a walk, a slow ride or even a walk in the ocean or pool.



4. Massage
Research has suggested that massage may assist in reducing swelling, increase blood flow and decrease the pain of muscle soreness.
5. Ice Baths
You may have seen athletes standing in baths filled with ice water and wondered what are they doing? It may seem crazy, but this method may help reduce the soreness after that intense exercise session by reducing inflammation and swelling in the muscles.

6. R.I.C.E.R
For those who are experiencing extremely painful DOMS, the RICER method for acute injuries may also help. Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation and Referral to a physiotherapist may help alleviate your symptoms through reducing swelling and pain.

7. Gentle Stretching
A stretching session of the muscles you just worked may help you feel good after any type of exercise. It can also be nice and relaxing after a solid workout.

8. Smart Training
Although you may want to jump straight into a big workout after having a few months off, maybe try and ease yourself into it, even if it doesn’t feel like you are working that hard at the time. Perhaps just do a few less reps, or a few less kilometres and you can then build on it session by session and let your body adapt.

9. Activity The Next Day
You may not want to get out of bed and go for a walk or ride the next day because you are too sore, but it has been shown that low to moderate activity the day after a big session can assist in reducing your soreness.


So now you know that DOMS is a normal outcome from physical training – the first thing to do is NOT PANIC!  General soreness after exercise can be a normal thing.

Take note of our Top 9 Tips for reducing DOMS and see how you go at managing this very manageable pain.  If your pain does not settle, or you are concerned that your soreness may be more than DOMS it is recommended that you seek medical advice as soon as possible.

One of our physiotherapists will be able to assess your pain and determine if it is a case of DOMS or something more involved and will be able to assist you with a range of different treatment methods.