When I first met this client, let’s call her Amethyst she confessed that she was terrified at the prospect of experiencing any kind of pain during or after exercise.
She never heard the word DOMS so I explained the different types of pain we feel when we exercise that mustn’t be confused with each other:
🔥 “the burn” that we experience when we work a specific muscle group over and over again. That’s usually a good indication that we’re creating the right stimulus to instigate changes.
⚡ “the injury about to happen” type of pain when we are exerting ourselves past the point of safety or not exercising with correct form.
🤕 the pain and stiffness that we feel between 24 and 48 hours after exercising: the much dreaded DOMS (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness).
The latter was the pain that Amethyst was referring to and was afraid of.
I could have lied to her or tried to soften the blow, but I chose to be honest instead and told her that both the “burn” and DOMS were inevitable if she decided to take exercise seriously. But I also reassured her that both are manageable and with a bit of strategy DOMS can be overcome fairly quickly.
Admittedly in many years of working as a Fitness Coach (as well as being an athlete all my life), I have yet to experience a DOMS-free first workout of any kind, except for totally pointless workouts executed less than halfheartedly. If I work out a different muscle group for the first time in a while I will feel it the next day, if I take up a new sport or activity I will definitely feel it the next day because I’ll have used my muscles differently from my normal patterns of movement.
The reasons for DOMS aren’t fully understood yet. The mainstream theory seems to be that it’s due to micro-tears in the muscle fibres being caused by a new or intense exercise. The worst damage appears to happen during the lowering phase of an exercise (for example, returning the forearms to the start position after doing a biceps curl), this is also known as “negative” or “eccentric”.
There is also a theory that says the pain and stiffness stem from the inflammation that occurs as the muscle repairs get underway. There’s a bit of fluid imbalance happening too. Fluid moves into the muscles to support repair, causing a temporary swelling sensation and adding to the sore feels.
Finally, another theory states that Nerve Growth Factor, having a role in pain perception, might influence how we perceive pain, making the soreness feel more intense. But it assumes more of a sidekick role to the micro damage suffered by the muscle fibres.
What does this mean for my client (and you)?
Firstly it means that if she wants to look buff and trim she needs to take her resistance training seriously and not be afraid to go at it wholeheartedly. The thing is “wholeheartedly and seriously” refers entirely to whatever she’s capable of doing when she starts, they are not absolute measures. For some people wholeheartedly and intensely looks a lot like taking a brisk walk. That’s fine. The intensity can be increased over time as the body adapts to the new workload.
To achieve the much coveted “toned body” look Amethyst needs to consistently initiate the symphony of muscle breakdown-inflammation-repair big time over and over again. And on top of that, if she wants to keep on building lean body mass, while simultaneously losing fat, she needs to be meticulous with her nutrition. And her sleep. The zzz’s is where the magic happens when it comes to muscle growth and fat loss.
She also needs to consider using sports supplements. I know that a lot of people hate them, but I believe it’s because they don’t fully understand their value. You see, our body needs many different nutrients in varying quantities. Under normal circumstances, we can obtain these from the food we eat. However, when we perform structured exercise regularly, our nutritional demands change and it’s not always possible to meet them with ordinary food.
The effect of different types of sports supplements on muscle damage has been researched extensively. As always, there isn’t a definitive answer but if you’re concerned about DOMS consider the following:
- Protein shake supplements have come up trumps, especially good old whey protein (not the isolate). Whey is a top-tier source of high-quality protein, loaded with essential amino acids. These amino acids are the building blocks your muscles crave for repair and growth. It’s quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, making it available to team repairs when it’s needed the most. It also seems to help dial down inflammation and it’s super convenient to use.
- BCAAs (Branch Chained Amino Acids). Studies hint that BCAAs might help reduce muscle soreness and speed up recovery. Not in a big way, but they certainly appear to make a positive contribution. It’s a bit like adding nitro to your fuel to go faster.
- Natural anti-inflammatories. Yes, we need inflammation to begin the repair process but, sometimes, this can get a little bit out of hand and add unnecessary drama to a necessary process. Good choices are Omega 3s, Curcumin, and Tart Cherry juice.
- Hydration. Drink that water, then drink some more.
- Carbohydrates taken in isolation don’t seem to be very beneficial, however, when carbs are taken together with protein you have THE winning combo. Carbs alone will help you replenish the glycogen stores that have been depleted during exercise but that’s as far as it goes. After an intense workout your body is primed for nutrient absorption so if you provide both glycogen and protein you’re a superstar! What does this look like? A protein shake with a banana. It can be as simple as that.
- Active recovery. I know it’s tempting to remain horizontal until the pain has gone, but please don’t. Get up and do some gentle exercise like going for a long walk or a gentle yoga workout. Hell, even mobilisation exercises would be great.
It’s important to note that a good quality pure whey protein powder will have abundant quantities of BCAAs in it and in most cases it will be enough. However, if you believe that you worked out extremely hard and/or your DOMS is making you wince every time you move it’s OK to take some BCAAs in addition to the whey to speed up the repair process.
When does she need to take the supplements to beat her DOMS?
Again, different studies were carried out on this and the findings were all over the place (read the reviews here and here). Some studies showed a benefit in taking the protein+carbs supplement BEFORE exercise while others supported the hypothesis that there is a “window of opportunity” of 1 hr immediately AFTER a workout when supplementation would be most beneficial, whereas other studies showed no benefit at all from following either protocol. Or both.
The problem with drawing accurate conclusions from the research available is mostly due to the fact that none of the studies followed the exact same exercise protocol nor used the exact same supplements. Some participants were untrained, whereas others were fit bodybuilders who exhibited a slightly different response to protein uptake.
Having said all this, and after practically comparing apples with plums and pears, it appears that the winning solution for Amethyst might be to take some BCAAs immediately before her workouts to slow down the natural breakdown of amino acids for energy production during exercise AND then take a combination of proteins+carbs within 1hr of finishing her workout. This should ensure that her lean body mass increases and that the effects of her DOMS will be minimized.
How does this translate into practical, everyday terms?
Well, my client is a successful entrepreneur who works mostly from home. She prefers to exercise in the middle of the day and can schedule her meals around her commitments.
She’s not keen on using “products for bodybuilders” so for her, the best strategy would be to use food from the grocery store for muscle recovery after her workouts.
She could have a glass of low-fat milk before the start of her workout and then she could have a full balanced meal afterward to include a source of protein, vegetables, healthy fats, and a small portion of starchy carbs. OR she could make herself a milkshake with low-fat milk, cacao, nuts, and fruit (berries are perfect for this). Ideally, I would like her to add some protein powder to this, but I need to work on my persuasion tactics first. 😉
It all depends on what you are trying to achieve: if you’re happy to shrink a couple of dress sizes and look a little bit toned go for normal food and you’ll get results. However, if you want to see a dramatic change to your body composition you’ll be better off jumping into the supplements world with both feet. It’s really not that bad, albeit a bit noisy. And it’s a bit crowded.
The reasons are multiple: you know exactly how much of each nutrient you are taking, they’re standardized (quality is consistent), they are practical and will save you from eating a whole chicken every day just to get enough protein. Thus they are also cost effective if you stick to what you need and don’t give in to shiny supplement syndrome.
Regardless of what the research suggests, I find the use of post-workout supplements highly beneficial both physically (my training sessions are usually intense because I like it that way) but also psychologically as the stress of a jolly good workout, the type that every fibre in my body is aware of, can bring on cravings for all manner of starchy things. When I have a proper post-workout meal everything calms down very quickly and I barely feel the DOMS the next day or so.
I learned this lesson the hard way a few years ago when I did my first “proper” figure building training session for a competition that never happened. I didn’t take adequate supplements immediately after the workout and although I was fine the next day, 48 hours later I was more or less paralyzed. I had to spend the rest of the week sliding down the stairs on a bin liner. I avoided drinking water frequently so that my lying down on the sofa wouldn’t get interrupted by the need to use the bathroom. It was funny even at the time despite the excruciating pain I was experiencing.
What about protein bars?
No. Don’t buy them. The majority of protein bars, including those sold by reputable sports supplement companies, tend to be sugar bombs. You don’t need them. Stay away! 🛑
You can, however, make your own protein bars at home so you can take them with you and have them on the go. Like these below 👇
The process of making these protein bars is fairly simple and I much prefer the slightly bitter taste compared to those available everywhere you go. There’s no baking involved and the ingredients are usually available from the grocery store. All you need is a food blender and some elbow grease.
I adapted the recipe from another recipe (that was probably adapted from somebody else’s recipe) to suit my taste and needs, as well as my genetic ability to metabolize fats and sugar.
You can download a copy of my recipe by entering your details in the form below. This will also subscribe you to my newsletter where I share my best tips for fine tuning your weight loss and fitness journey. It’s free and it’s sent out weekly. If you don’t wish to receive my emails you can unsubscribe with one click.
Enjoy and let me know how you got on in the comments!