What to Do When You Have DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness)

Expert Reviewed:Rudolf Alviedo, PT, DPT

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What to Do When You Have DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness)
Man sitting down on a gym floor

If you’ve ever taken an extended break from working out or are starting a brand new activity, you’ve probably been a victim of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). 

And for many, the aches and pains of DOMS can be a deterrent to working out again. Have you ever said, “I’m so sore, I can’t move,” or, “Everything hurts. It even hurts to laugh!” Well, welcome to DOMS. 

The good news: There’s plenty of easy things that anyone can do to mitigate or get rid of that soreness fairly quickly. 

TL;DR: Move around on the days that you don’t work out. Not necessarily a lot, but at least a little. Remember, something is better than nothing. Eat a balanced diet with protein and vegetables. Drink coffee or tea if you’re a caffeine drinker. Drink lots of water. Get some sleep.

What Is DOMs?

Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) occurs in response to strenuous activity, particularly repeated eccentric muscle contractions or new and unfamiliar forms of exercises. These cause microscopic muscle damage followed by an inflammatory response. Eccentric muscle contractions are the forced lengthening portions of an exercise, such as the descent into a squat or lowering of a dumbbell when doing curls. 

Common DOMS symptoms:

  • Pain and tenderness to the touch

  • Temporary loss of strength

  • Stiffness in the joints

  • Swelling 

Let’s be clear: DOMS doesn’t appear during a workout. If you have a sudden onset of sharp, shooting pain when performing a new exercise or in the course of working out in general, that’s a sign of an acute injury. Get evaluated by a medical professional as soon as possible.

DOMS happens in a fairly predictable, bell curve fashion that usually begins with a rapid progression, peaks, and then gradually declines. 

Discomfort generally starts within the first 24 hours following the end of a workout. Then, over the course of the next one to three days, DOMS increases steadily — sometimes even exponentially, depending on a person’s initial fitness level and the particular workout they performed. After that, it can take anywhere between five to seven more days for it to subside gradually. 

All told, that means DOMS can potentially affect someone for a total of six to 10 days. That’s a long time! And if you wait that entire time before you exercise again, DOMS can derail the momentum that got you to work out in the first place.

Short-term Management of DOMS

You finally decided to get back into working out. You open up the Kickoff app and your personal trainer creates a routine that’s perfect for you. 

You’re feeling good, are ready to sweat, and decide to push yourself. You’re excited to be on the road to meeting your fitness goals.

Then… the next day comes and you can’t move. It hurts to get out of bed. It hurts to walk. And if you just did legs, let’s hope you don’t have any stairs ‘cuz they’re the worst. 

So, how can you manage those painful DOMS? Well, the best way to treat DOMS is the same way that you got it: exercise

But, in the short term, it’s all about choosing the right exercise when you’re already sore. Remember, we’re trying to make those first few days and weeks as painless as possible, especially if you’re just starting out.

If you have a lot of time the day after that DOMS-inducing workout and you plan on doing another workout with your Kickoff coach, then feel free. Just make sure that you dial in your warm-up to loosen your sore muscles and move some of those inflammatory chemicals that built up.

But, if you don’t have a lot of time or you’re in so much pain that the thought of any activity is too much for you, here’s a simple routine that can be modified to accommodate anyone’s fitness or soreness level. 

2-Minute Routine to Ease DOMS

Rudy Alvideo demonstrates how to do chair squats with proper form.

How to:

  1. Stand with your hands behind your head 

  2. Take a deep breath and bend forward at the waist while sticking your butt backwards.

  3. Bend your knees slightly as needed. 

  4. Don’t bend too far. 

  5. Repeat 10x.

  6. While keeping your hands behind your head, move into doing air squats. 

  7. Make sure to breathe between repetitions. Keep your chest up and butt out the entire time. 

  8. Go as low as you can handle. Increase the depth as comfortable. 

  9. Repeat 10x. 

  10. Perform the whole routine again two more times throughout the day. 

2-Minute Chair-based (Modified) Routine to Ease DOMS

Rudy Alviedo demonstrates how to do a modified chair squat to help ease DOMS.

How to:

  1. Start in a sitting position on a sturdy chair, preferably without wheels.

  2. Place your hands behind your head.

  3. Take a deep breath and bend forward at the waist, while sitting. You don’t need to go very far. This is more about repetition than depth.

  4. Repeat 10x.

  5. Move on to the squats with the same instructions as above, only this time your bottom will be touching the chair after every repetition. 

  6. Depth doesn’t matter, again, this is about just moving more than anything else.

  7. Repeat 10x.

  8. Perform this seated routine as many times as you’d like throughout the day. This is simpler than the full routine and can even be done at your desk at work. 

These routines fall under the category of “active recovery,” when you perform some sort of low-intensity activity following a higher-intensity workout. Other examples include:

  • Walking for 20–30 minutes

  • Riding your bike

  • Low-impact yoga

Aside from doing some active recovery the day after a hard workout, make sure you eat nutrient-dense foods and hydrate well. Proper nutrition can begin immediately after finishing a workout and is an easy way to manage DOMS.

  • Caffeine has the potential to decrease the length of time that people experience DOMS to between two to three days. That’s huge! Not everyone drinks caffeine and that’s perfectly fine. But for those of us who enjoy our coffee or tea, 5 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight ingested within one to two days after strenuous exercise has shown some benefits.

  • Protein, specifically animal protein, has been shown to reduce DOMS. The important chemicals that were targeted in particular were taurine and BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids), which were shown to lower soreness and muscle damage. So for anyone who doesn’t eat meat, supplementation is a perfectly viable option.

  • Eating plants can be beneficial too. Specific plant chemicals, particularly polyphenol, have been shown in some research to reduce the inflammation associated with DOMS. Beyond that, plants contain micronutrients and fiber that help with digestion and overall gut health. It’s never a bad idea to eat fruits and vegetables.

  • Dehydration has been shown to worsen the effect of DOMS in the first 24–48 hours after a workout. So remember to hydrate properly, before, during, and after exercise. A well-hydrated body can improve your workout capacity, allowing you to work out harder and for longer. 

The following are other treatments that can be done immediately after a strenuous workout to mitigate at least some part of the DOMS cycle. 

  • Contrast water therapy (CWT) is switching back and forth between immersing yourself in cold water and warm water. It may improve muscle soreness significantly in the first 24–72 hours after strenuous activity.

  • Massage immediately following and up to two hours after exercise significantly improved DOMS in the first 24 hours post-workout. One study suggests that a 20-minute Swedish massage immediately after squatting can help DOMS symptoms.

  • Icing and cold water immersion can help alleviate DOMS in the first 24-48 hours after a workout. But, after the 72 hour mark, the effect is negligible. Overall, icing is only slightly better than doing nothing at all.

  • Compression garments can help, but their effects are less noticeable and some of the application recommendations can be tedious or lengthy. 

Long-term Management of DOMS

Some people associate DOMS with their fitness gains and progress. We all know the old adage, “No pain, no gain.” But, pain, especially in the beginning of a fitness journey, is not something that everyone necessarily wants or needs. 

Overall fitness and healthy living is a marathon, not a sprint. And my goal as a physical therapist is for my patients to be able to manage their own symptoms safely and sustainably. 

Active recovery is a simple, short-term solution to DOMS that anyone can do. It doesn’t have to be anything major or time consuming. That’s why I provided the easy-to-follow routine above. What matters most is that you move in some way the first couple of days after a strenuous workout. Remember — something is better than nothing. 

Now, what about long-term management of DOMS? Well, that becomes more of a juggling act than anything else. And don’t worry, it may sound daunting, especially for beginners, but it’s easier than you think.

  1. Alternate upper body and lower body workouts to manage DOMS. There are plenty of examples out there and you should find one that works for you. Here are two specific examples that can work for people of all fitness levels.

    1. A four-day workout split can be:

      1. Monday: Upper body

      2. Tuesday: Lower body

      3. Wednesday: Rest or active recovery

      4. Thursday: Upper body

      5. Friday: Lower body

      6. Saturday and Sunday for rest and relaxation

    2. Another popular four-day split can be:

      1. Monday: Push exercises

      2. Tuesday: Pull exercises

      3. Wednesday: Rest or active recovery

      4. Thursday: Push exercises

      5. Friday: Pull exercises

      6. Saturday and Sunday for rest and relaxation

  2. If you prefer to do a full-body routine every day that you work out, then your weekly schedule would look something like this:

    1. Monday: Full body

    2. Tuesday: Active recovery

    3. Wednesday: Full body

    4. Thursday: Active Recovery

    5. Friday: Full body

    6. Saturday and Sunday for rest and relaxation

As you can see, in both scenarios there are built-in active recovery days regardless of which schedule you prefer. We all have busy lifestyles and not everyone can work out five to seven days a week. So, take your rest days or active recovery days when you can.

Chasing After DOMS and Progressive Overload

Progressive overload is exactly what it sounds like — continuously increasing the demand on your body when you’re working out. This is why DOMS affects advanced athletes as much as beginners. But, there’s a fine line between steady and safe progressive overload versus going hard and fast at the very beginning of your fitness journey.

For starters, if you’re just picking up a dumbbell for the first time in a long time, then pretty much any activity would be considered “overloading” your body because, up to that point, you may not have done much and your muscles are easy to stress.

Over time though, you’ll find that you’re not getting the same “pump” as you were before, or maybe DOMS isn’t hitting you as hard as it used to. That’s just your body adapting to your new fitness lifestyle.

At this point, some people may decide to chase after DOMS because they might associate them with progress. And that’s true to a point. When our bodies adapt to a specific activity, they need new stimulus to change things up.

But that doesn’t always mean that you need to switch to a completely different routine or hop onto a new fitness fad. It can be as simple as adding five pounds to your squat or adding an extra two reps to your burpees. What matters here is consistent progress over an extended period of time. That’s why it helps to keep a log of things like how many reps you did, what weight you used, your number of rest breaks, or duration of your workouts. 

Small changes week to week can add up to big changes over time. And you’ll find that keeping track of those numbers will help you maintain and manage a certain level of DOMS throughout your fitness journey.