We have all been there.
Maybe you felt it getting out of your car, maybe you felt it trying to sit down on the toilet, or maybe a set of stairs in your home looked like Mount Everest after a brutal leg workout.
This feeling is known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) within the research, and I want to explore two different questions today:
- Does getting sore mean you had a successful workout?
- How can we reduce muscle soreness so that we don’t impact our baseball performance?
These two questions are important to ask because many wear muscle soreness as a badge of honor, and then there are many other who want to minimize soreness as much as possible because they feel it makes them sluggish out on the field.
But in order to properly answer these questions, we first must understand what we’re talking about.
What is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness?
Most people feel the more extreme type of soreness in one of two scenarios:
- After a hard leg day
- After they have taken a few weeks off the gym and are now working through their first week back
The research indicates that soreness isn’t restricted to any particular muscle groups, but, we just seem to feel it much more in certain muscles groups than others.
You don’t hear many people say “Dude! I just can’t believe how sore my rear delts are!” – but you do hear plenty of people have brutally sore legs, arms, and core muscles after a layoff.
Getting down to the nitty gritty, DOMS is fiber damage. Nothing serious, just small microtears within our muscle as a result of working them so hard in the gym. The degree of damage determines the degree of pain.
As I’m sure you’ve felt, this can vary greatly. Anywhere from “slight discomfort” to severe restrictions in your available range of motion. Muscle soreness typically begins to take place approximately 8-10 hours post-workout, and ultimately peaks in soreness within the 48-72 hours post-workout window. This is why your legs normally feel worse two days after the workout, in comparison to the day after.
Although muscle soreness is a known symptom of DOMS, the research is still incomplete in this area as it seems that when you view muscle fibers at the microscopic level that damage isn’t perfectly correlated with subjective feelings of soreness.
Put another way, just because your sore, doesn’t mean you physically shredded up your muscle tissue. This statement is supported by MRI imaging within the data, but, also through some common sense and logic.
Common sense point #1: If muscle damage was the only contributor to muscle soreness, then we would feel its “peak” in pain immediately post-workout, not 2 days later.
Common sense point #2: Muscle damage can’t be the only correlate for muscle soreness because when we take a couple weeks off the gym and then come back for training – we are in many cases still just as strong and just as muscular as we were when we left.
Meaning, we still have the same capability (if not, even more now since we are properly recovered) that we had before we left, and yet this first week back is still incredibly painful, even though our muscles could technically handle it. This means it’s unlikely any significantly greater amount of true damage was done, and yet muscle soreness levels still increase at a significant rate. This means it’s possible for severe DOMS to develop with no indication of true muscle damage.
Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage
We know with a great degree of certainty that two different types of training styles cause more soreness in comparison to other training styles:
- Eccentric focused training
- Metabolic stress
Eccentric training is when you place a greater degree of emphasis on the lengthening component of a lift, also known more commonly as the “negative” portion of a lift.
An example here could be you lowering your bench press reps down to your chest slower than normal, or, lowering your biceps curls down slower than normal to hold on to the “negative” rep.
Almost every study in this area indicates that eccentric exercise basically trashes your muscle tissue and gives you very measurable amounts of subjective soreness.
Metabolic stress, on the other hand, is when you are performing high-repetition, low rest, “pump” inducing sets to failure.
It doesn’t always have to be this way, but, in most cases metabolic stress work for baseball players would include things like drop sets, no-rest super sets, and all-out prowler pushes. These all cause major buildups of reactive oxygen species and hydrogen ions within the muscle and both are thought to contribute to the muscle soreness effect via cell inflammation.
Important note, hydrogen ions and reactive oxygen species are not meant to be confused with lactic acid. Lactic acid does not cause muscle soreness in any way, and the old ways of thinking about this were completely wrong heavily out-dated within the research at this point in time.
If I’m Sore, That’s Good for Building Muscle Right?
There is already existing research demonstrating that after long runs you can create extreme soreness, and yet you and I both know good and well that running for a long time doesn’t increase muscle growth.
Some people connect soreness to muscle growth because newbies at the gym get their newbie gains quickly alongside some heavy muscle soreness. But to repeat an above-mentioned point, they are sore because this is a new training stimulus to them, and not because they are growing.
Beyond this, we have also seen in the literature that men and women have no differences in subjective DOMS, and yet men typically add muscle tissue at a faster rate when joining the gym in comparison to their female counterparts (this difference is mostly in the upper body, and not in the lower body where females tend to have excellent strength development.)
Beyond this, evidence has demonstrated that muscle soreness could reduce the amount of muscle you gain over the course of a structured program due to the fact that your soreness decreases the productivity of your future training sessions.
Essentially, soreness decreases both your motor unit recruitment and your total force output (force reductions have been seen to reach 50% within the literature). This combination has very clear and obvious reductions in both training quality but also baseball performance.
Make no mistake about it, I am very clearly trying to tell you that the old “No pain, no gain” saying is false, at least when it comes to muscle and strength development.
Is It Possible to Lower Muscle Soreness?
Having coached hundreds of athletes in my career and having read approximately 7 billion research studies on my spare time, I have found some very sound strategies that you can use in order to lower muscle soreness levels in your body.
- The first strategy is very simple, you should slowly progress into your new exercise programs. If you have ever had a real professional design your programming, you will notice that the first 1-2 weeks have a lower training volume. This lower volume is in place to allow your musculature time to adapt to the new movement pattern (thus, reducing soreness) and also allow you to more effectively recover (in many cases, this can actually eliminate a need for a full-on deload when done correctly).
- Warming up or stretching does not reduce muscle soreness. So, although it’s recommended to incorporate these properly for mobility, injury reduction, and exercise performance – by no means will they reduce muscle soreness. Foam rolling is in the same boat here. It can be beneficial when executed properly within the correct context but do not look to it to reduce your muscle soreness.
- Getting a massage has been demonstrated to reduce muscle soreness, reduce inflammation levels, decrease feelings of subjective pain, increase range of motion, and reduce muscle stiffness. These are all excellent benefits, although the research is still unclear as to understand when the best time is to get a massage done. My intuition tells me that post-workout is the most ideal time due to its effects on stress hormones and inflammation, but, we can’t be certain just yet. In any case, I think it’s a great thing for baseball players to get a massage once per week during high volume training phases.
- Somewhat unexpectedly, caffeine has been linked to reducing DOMS within the literature. Pre-workout caffeine in resistance training males reduced feelings of muscle soreness greater than the placebo group in every workout trialed and was concluded that pre-workout caffeine may decrease all soreness levels. Beyond this, the caffeine group was also able to perform more reps than the placebo group, making it a viable performance enhancement option as well for baseball players.
- There is an amino acid known as taurine and it had an impressive showing within a clinical trial when 10 males underwent 7-days of eccentric-focused training (remember before? Eccentric is what makes muscle soreness worse than it already is) and found that the group who supplemented with taurine (at 50mg per day) had significantly lower muscle soreness levels than the placebo group. Even though this was one trial, this was powerful to me because it was a double-blind trial and the dose was only 50mg, whereas it’s safe to take up to 3000mg of taurine per day. So, I feel baseball players could benefit immensely by taking anywhere from 1-3g of taurine per day in addition to their hectic training schedules.
- Good old-fashioned Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to increasing muscle size, muscle strength, reducing body fat, and reducing muscle soreness levels. Their effect on muscle soreness is likely due to the fact that they are highly anti-inflammatory, which can also help “put out the fire” in your muscle cells.
- Even though it’s a bandwagon that is gaining a lot of steam, cryotherapy does not reduce muscle soreness levels. There is very little research in this area, and what research we do have is still inconclusive, so I’m putting this in the “maybe pile” for now, and I would suggest you do as well.
Although soreness can provide some type of indicator that you had a decent workout, it is by no means “the” indicator. Beyond this, you learned that high levels of soreness can even reduce your ability to train properly and therefore make more progress throughout a structured baseball training program. Not to mention it’s super stressful and irritating to deal with if you have an active lifestyle outside of all your baseball training.
As a final note, nothing is going to be more impactful for your recovery than getting your calories, macronutrients, and sleep correct. These are the true pillars for recovery and should not ever be forgotten. Put another way, don’t buy taurine if you have no idea what your calorie and macronutrient daily intake is. You’re putting the cart before the horse.
But, once you have your diet and sleep in check, the above strategies (and, what not to-do’s) can be very beneficial towards making you a better baseball athlete.