My legs still ache 3-4 days after legs day

  • I have been working out for ~6 months and have worked my legs once per week throughout this time, on their own day.

    My legs, especially my quads, ache to the point of finding it hard to walk, particularly up or down stairs, for between 3-4 days after a leg workout. At first (the initial month or two) I thought to myself this is great because it meant I did good during my workout. Now 6 months on I am starting to think I'm doing something wrong, mainly because of the duration of soreness.

    My current legs routine is:

    - 4x5  Squats (on the Smith Machine because can't get the balance right for a proper squat).
    - 4x10 Incline leg press machine.
    - 3x15 Calf extension on leg press machine.
    - 3x10 Leg extension
           ^ Superset with 3x10 Leg curl machine.

    I'm pretty confident that I am getting adequate recovery time and resources; I get an average of 7 hours sleep per night and have been forcing myself to eat up to 5 times per day.

    Some factors that may provide information about why this would be happening:

    • As a web developer, I sit at a PC for the majority of the day and don't move my legs much.
    • I don't make any time to stretch out my legs or anything, not sure if that will impact.
    • I don't do any cardio (bike / treadmill), again not sure if that impacts.

    Is this common, and is there a way to reduce the duration or magnitude of soreness?

    I get more DOMS (and worse results) when there's too much time between workouts. I'd try to incorporate one more leg day/per week. Many beginner programs have squats three times/week.

    Like Markus says, workout legs more often. Ever since I started doing squats every workout, I no longer get DOMS in my quads, and I'm actually squatting more every workout than I did when I only did legs once a week.

    It's normal, and as long as you're training your legs hard, they're just going to hurt. I've been training my legs hard for 12 years, and it usually takes me 5 days to fully recover. Going long periods of time sitting at a desk w/o moving your legs contributes a lot to stiffness. Try doing this: The day after your leg workout, go back to the gym and do a couple of sets to work your quads, not to failure, but burn them good. Most people find that helps reduce soreness.

    Stretch, every day. It doesn't take long. I tend to do it after working out and on non-workout days in the evening

    @Shane I did a couple light sets on incline leg press between sets yesterday and it seems to have helped a lot for the stiffness, but they're probably even sorer than they would have been.

    @Marty I'm just a fellow weight lifter & I can't tell the advantages of a foam roller enough. Doing foam roller stretching exercises post-workout diminishes most of the pain. Give it a try.

    I'm a software developer too and I've always had the same problem. What I know for a fact is that exercising everyday makes the legs heal faster than if I sat in my cubicle all day everyday. Probably because of the blood flow and stimuli.

  • Daniel

    Daniel Correct answer

    8 years ago

    The bizarre thing about delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is that we still don't really know what causes it. Though people like to attribute it to lactic acid buildup, that's probably a misconception. As stated in the article:

    Researchers who have examined lactate levels right after exercise found little correlation with the level of muscle soreness felt a few days later.

    Referencing Nosaka's research published in this book, Wikipedia goes on to explain:

    Two other hypotheses that have been advanced to explain the soreness, muscle spasms and the presence of lactic acid in the muscle, are now considered unlikely to be correct, since there is evidence to refute them.

    Common sense would lead us to believe that the soreness is caused from tissue damage. I think that's probably the case, and I agree with the article when it says:

    Though the precise cause of DOMS is still unknown, most research points to actual muscle cell damage and an elevated release of various metabolites into the tissue surrounding the muscle cells.

    I suppose that it may possibly tie back to how muscles work in an anaerobic state, which we explored in one of your previous questions.

    As for prevention, I'm sure we've all heard numerous remedies. Most of these have turned out to be false, including stretching and warming up. However, as described in this publication, gradually increasing the intensity may mitigate some of the soreness. Since you've been working your legs for over six months already, that might not be relevant.

    In any case, if we act on the hypothesis that DOMS is caused by tissue damage (which I think we should), and if we can't reduce that damage by lowering our workout intensity, that leaves us with the option of doing what we can to speed recovery after the damage has occurred.

    The answer involves knowing a bit about how the lymphatic system works in the body (in relation to tissue damage). Among other things, your body uses lymph to collect and flush damaged cells. The lymph is transported by one-way vessels throughout your body and eventually drains into the subclavian veins. The important thing to note is that lymph is not pumped like blood through a closed system, but rather "drains" with the aid of muscle contraction, gravity, etc.

    So if the lymphatic system is how the body cleans up damaged tissues, and your DOMS are actually caused by tissue damage, recovering from your tissue damage means doing everything you can to help that system perform as well as it can. I'm sure this video, in which Kelly Starrett (KStarr) et. al. describe that very thing in detail has been posted here before. The old belief that rest, ice, compression, elevation (RICE) is the best way to treat this type of damage is wrong. As described in the video, rest and ice actually have a negative effect on lymph's ability to move around, so does anti-inflammatory medication.

    The article that goes along with KStarr's video offers what I think is the best and most current treatment: movement, compression, elevation (MCE). Movement will keep the lymph pumping, short compression treatments (massage, compression bands, etc) will also help push lymph, and elevation will also aid in moving the lymph. Since I squat three times a week, personally I do full range bosu ball squats (as recommended by KStarr in this video) to clean up soreness and stiffness. If you think about the iterations of contraction and relaxation the muscles have to do to balance in this movement, it seems an ideal way to pump lymph.

    Additionally, since lymph is "recycled" blood plasma (which is 90% water) staying hydrated is a good idea. As numerous resources I've linked have mentioned, making sure you're receiving proper nutrition and managing electrolytes will also help.

    The linked resources offer a ton of information on the subject matter if you'd like to find out more. What seems to be the consensus is that the best way to treat your DOMS is probably movement, hydration, nutrition, electrolytes, compression treatments, and elevation.

    You missed an important point, "RICE is considered a first-aid treatment." If you're forced to rely on RICE (or MCE) for relief from every workout then you're probably dealing with an injury not DOMS. If it's just regular DOMS, move around, do some light dynamic stretches, maybe light exercise to increase circulation.

    @EvanPlaice "So if the lymphatic system is how the body cleans up damaged tissues, and your DOMS are actually caused by tissue damage, recovering from your tissue damage means doing everything you can to help that system perform as well as it can."

    What I'm saying is, the RICE treatment (whether it works or not) is only meant to treat injuries. You're mixing injury treatment with DOMS prevention. They're two completely different topics. If the point you're trying to make is, "increase circulation on rest days to improve recovery times" then cover that but remove the ambiguous/unrelated stuff about injury treatment.

    What distinction is there between injury and damaged tissue? If you'd like to discuss this further let's take it to chat.

    Just google 'DOMS vs injury'. There's plenty to read on the topic. In short DOMS = good & injury = bad.

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