Any soreness or pain following exercise should always be taken seriously, but a dull aching pain in the chest, triceps and shoulders 24 to 72 hours after a tough bout of push-ups is likely a case of DOMS and is perfectly normal. Standing for "delayed onset muscle soreness," DOMS is a sign you’ve worked a muscle group harder than it's used to either in terms of sets, reps, load or speed of contraction.
The Mechanisms Behind DOMS
DOMS is caused by the eccentric phase of exercises, where muscles are lengthening under load. Often this will occur during the lowering phase of a resistance exercise. The actual discomfort is because of damage at a microscopic level to the muscle fibers. The exact reason the soreness takes 24 to 72 hours to manifest is not completely understood.
Exercises That Lead to DOMS
Any exercise that is new to the body or performed at a higher intensity than the body is adapted to can lead to DOMS, but there are certain workouts that are renowned for causing it. A tough leg session with heavy squats, particularly if you’re not used to them, is one, and downhill running is another. Both involve a high amount of unavoidable eccentric loading.
Should You Avoid DOMS?
For many exercisers, a good case of DOMS is a sure sign they’ve had a great workout and, as long as it doesn't affect future sessions negatively, is all part of the training process. The fact the soreness typically disappears on its own and will reduce in intensity with repeated exposure to the cause indicates no obvious cause for concern. But a severe case DOMS can indicate a workout was too intense and may expose muscles to other risks associated with overtraining.
How to Prevent DOMS
The easiest way to prevent DOMS is to follow a well-structured progressive training plan with no sudden leaps in intensity. If you are planning to introduce new exercises or workout types to your routine, do so gradually and begin with relatively light loading levels. Neither post-exercise stretching or warming up seems to reduce soreness.
How to Alleviate DOMS
Even the worse case of DOMS will generally disappear in 72 hours without intervention. Many athletes report that massage and saunas both help. Low intensity exercise involving the muscle group can also be beneficial. For upper body soreness, swimming is ideal, and for sore legs, easy-paced cycling is excellent. The use of pain killers or a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory is not recommended.
- "NSCA's Essentials of Personal Training"; Earle and Baechle; 2004
- Peak Performance: How to Prevent and Treat Sore Muscles Post Exercise