Water Retention After Resistance Training

You feel great! You cleaned up your diet, renewed your gym membership and knocked out your first couple of killer workouts. Never mind that you're so sore you can hardly climb on the scale. It's worth it just to see the numbers go...up?! Before you throw up your hands in despair and break out a pint of Ben and Jerry's, take a deep breath and relax. It's just a little water retention caused by DOMS.

Gym woman workout
One side effect of a challenging workout is a temporary gain in water weight. (Image: Maridav/iStock/Getty Images)


DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness, is a common phenomenon marked by muscle pain ranging from mild to debilitating and manifesting 24 to 48 hours after your workout. Besides muscle soreness, other symptoms of DOMS include loss of strength, decreased range of motion, decreased neuromuscular function, mild inflammation and an increase of two to three pounds or more in body weight. DOMS is common in individuals who are new to resistance training or as a response to a change in exercise routines, such as adding challenging, new exercises or increasing weight loads.

Causes of DOMS

Once thought to be caused by the accumulation of lactic acid in the muscle cells as a bi-product of ATP metabolism, researchers now believe that structural damage to the muscle cells caused during the muscle lengthening, or eccentric, phase of exercise is the cause of DOMS. Exercise physiologist Len Kravitz, PhD, of the University of New Mexico explains that the tearing of muscle tissue and the rupture of muscle cells initiates an inflammatory response which peaks 24 to 36 hours after exercise. As a part of this response, the hormones ADH and aldosterone cause the kidneys to retain water. After a few days balance is restored and water weight is eliminated.

DOMS Prevention

While DOMS is not completely preventable, symptoms may be diminished. Auburn University's David J. Szymanski, M.Ed notes that a pre-exercise warm-up may minimize damage to muscle tissue. Szymanski recommends a general warm-up that uses large muscle groups like walking or jogging to elevate core temperature and warm the muscles followed by a specific warm-up for the muscles to be targeted during exercise, like a set using light weights before loading up. Practicing good technique will also minimize tissue damage. Lifting more weight than you can control in the muscle lengthening phase places stress on muscles and joints as gravity takes over.

DOMS Treatment

Taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDS, like ibuprophen has been a common practice for treating DOMS. However, according to Len Kravitz, PhD, NSAIDS do not appear to be an effective treatment. Rest, stretching and massage therapy may help. DOMS usually diminishes or disappears completely within three to four days of your exercise session. The Sports Injury Advisor cautions that post-exercise pain that lasts longer than a week may indicate damage that requires medical attention. Meanwhile, you may want to steer clear of the scale for a few days after vigorous weight training.

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