DOMS And Why Health-First Fitness Matters

Hi my name is John Sifferman, and I’m suffering from a severe case of EPDOMS. They say admitting you need help is the first step to recovery. So, now I’m here for the 12-step program.

What is EPDOMS you ask? EPDOMS stands for Extremely Painful Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness. This is like regular DOMS taken to an extreme. So, how does one provoke a bad case of EPDOMS?

Well, you see, not too long ago, I subjected myself to an act of lunacy. I decided to film a video for an article demonstrating a maximum repetition set of bodyweight squats. You’re probably asking yourself, “what’s the big deal? That’s easy, right?” Theoretically, that would be the case, but I have a knack for surprising even myself sometimes. In this particular case, I wasn’t quite aware of my capacity in this exercise, nor was I expecting to score nearly as many repetitions as I performed. I was expecting (and hoping) to top out around 80 or 100 reps, deal with some marginal soreness for a day or two, and live happily ever after. After all, I haven’t trained high rep bodyweight squats in years – fatiguing around 40-50 reps, and maxing out around twice that much sounded about right. Needless to say, that’s not exactly what happened.

When all was said and done, I had been doing squats for 12 minutes, and I have no idea how many reps I did (lost count around 82, or was it 83…). Now, I’ve heard of guys doing sets of 500 and even 1000 squats, so I didn’t set a world record by any stretch, but it was truly a maximal set and I did experience muscle failure (which was the goal).

The point I was trying to make from that video is that most fitness trainees don’t even come close to a high level of intensity in their training. Most trainees could be working much harder than they have been, and still not even come close to maximal exertion. Unfortunately for me, it took hundreds of repetitions to demonstrate a set to muscle failure, and I dealt with the resulting DOMS accordingly. It took 7 days before I was truly able to function again, and two weeks before I was back to my normal self. Yikes!

This event sparked a reminder for why I purposely do NOT seek DOMS or use muscle soreness as an indicator of progress. If nothing else, I want my training to help me reach my goals as quickly and safely as possible AND not make me sore (or otherwise weaken me) in the process.

For what it’s worth, my friend and natural bodybuilder, Tom Venuto, told me he once did a set of 500 Hindu squats, and was just as sore from those as any extreme bodybuilding workout he’s ever done. That may be true, and believe me when I tell you that I’ve had some pretty bad cases of DOMS back in the day, but this was something else entirely.

Case in point: The day after that squatting ritual… errr… session (heck, the night after that session), my legs were locked up so tight, I could barely bend my knees. I truly worked at my highest intensity possible and had utterly demolished the muscle tissue in my quads and hip flexors. It felt like my legs had been pummeled by a meat hammer until desperately tender. My nervous system had literally hijacked my body and would shut down my quads if I bent my knees much beyond 15 degrees.

There was so much tension in my legs that I couldn’t bend the knee using voluntary muscle control. I had to actually sit down or lay down to pull my ankle towards my hamstring with my arms in order to bend the knee. Some of my readers may find that humorous (I certainly did), and may even chuckle while thinking, “been there, done that.” Furthermore, a lot of trainees and coaches believe that severe muscle soreness just comes with the territory, it’s a necessary evil, and an indicator that you’re working hard enough to make progress. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Soreness is often worn as a badge of honor in fitness circles, but the reality is that it’s no indicator of a superior training effect. It’s simply an indicator that you worked harder than your body was prepared for at that particular time. So, severe DOMS proves that you’re either ignorant, stubborn, or tough – nothing more.

To clarify, some DOMS is normal and to be expected from any physical training (especially new physical training). What I’m talking about here is DOMS that limits your range of motion or is so painful, it’s either distracting or debilitating.

What I want to highlight in this article is the fact that my case of DOMS left me literally debilitated. Not being able to bend your knees largely restricts what you can do. Things like standing up and walking become a challenge, and climbing into the bathtub becomes almost impossible. You may be cracking up by now (and again, I was each time I got out of the bath), but this is what many people deal with on a daily basis. I know, because I did for years, too.

What I’m getting at is that DOMS, while a sure sign of hard work, also leaves you impotent and quite vulnerable. I couldn’t perform very basic movements because my range of motion was so restricted from the stiffness. Fitness trainees think that this is just the way it is, and there’s no other way around it. They believe you need to beat the body into submission, sacrifice your health and functionality, accept the weakened state required to heal, and then hope you’re stronger the next day so you can do it all again.

Well, let me tell you that it doesn’t need to be this way, and it shouldn’t be for most people. By any logic, it’s plain stupid to allow yourself to get into an unhealthy, weakened condition on a near-daily basis – even for the sake of building your fitness levels. This may sound like an overly-obvious question, but what good is your fitness if you’re partially debilitated almost all the time? Your fitness isn’t going to be worth squat if you’re in so much pain you can’t even function normally most of the time.

If your fitness program leaves you feeling drained, lethargic, exhausted, sick, or broken, then your fitness program sucks. You’re not building fit-ness if you experience these things as a direct result from your training. You’re building sick-ness and weak-ness. The body only adapts, and if you teach it to feel weak and inert for 23 hours of the day, then that’s what it’s going to be more prepared to repeat in the future.

Frank Forencich says it best in his book Change Your Body, Change The World (pages 205-207):

In essence, the functional unit of the nervous system is the groove. This informal term refers to any learned, habitual pattern of activity in the nervous system. Thus, one of the fundamental challenges of living in the human body comes down to this: grooving and ungrooving our brains,  bodies and behavior.

The raw material for this process is reps. It makes no difference what the context is: repeated use of the nervous system, in any form, increases the chances that such an action or behavior will be repeated…practice makes permanent…

…This is the paradox of skill development: if you’re not sufficiently grooved, your skills will be weak and wandering, but if you’re too deeply grooved, you’ll find it hard to do anything besides what you already know.

We can draw a lot of training-specific wisdom from that excerpt, but what I want to focus on is the section in bold. To put it bluntly, if you experience DOMS (or any type of weakened state) from training regularly, then you are more likely to experience that more often and to an even greater degree in the future. So, do your best to avoid it.

Now, what if I told you that you can make fast, safe, and healthy progress without experiencing any debilitating DOMS at all? You’d think I’m crazy, right? Well it’s true, and it’s how I roll! I’m much happier to not only be pain-free, but also be 100% capable and prepared for life’s challenges, at all times (even immediately after my high intensity training sessions).

This may sound preachy, but I feel compelled to be fit and ready at all times, in part, because I’m responsible for my family. I’m a husband and father, and therefore, the provider and protector. I don’t get time off from these roles or “off days,” and I need to be physically prepared and capable to act 24/7. It doesn’t matter if I just obliterated myself in my home gym, I need to be ready to act at a moments notice because my family is counting on me. Obviously, I’m responsible for more than just my familial duties, but for a broad range of duties. The Methode Naturelle motto, “be strong to be useful,”comes to mind.

To tell you the truth, after finishing that session of bodyweight squats, I wasn’t useful for anything. I couldn’t protect my family, let alone help with very menial tasks. I was injured and vulnerable, and in recovery. Other people actually had to work around my limitations, making me an extra burden on others. This same process takes place, if only to a lesser degree, every time we train in a way that leaves us less than 100%. If you’re a little sore (or weak, tired, etc.), then you’re a little vulnerable. If you’re really sore, then you’re really vulnerable.

I believe that one of the ultimate purposes of fitness is to be able to better serve others. This is one of many reasons why I only endorse and recommend a health-first fitness system like Circular Strength Training (CST). My long-time readers will know that I’m vigilant about practicing and teaching things like joint mobility training using Intu-Flow, Prasara BodyFlow Yoga, intuitive training, and breath awareness and mastery. These are just a small portion of what makes up health-first fitness training. It’s such a broad topic, and would take volumes to cover. This is why it must be experienced, rather than just talked about. There are so many factors that come into play when you make fitness health-first, that it can feel overwhelming, and that’s why I recommend that you first start by trying to shift your training philosophy.

Hold yourself to a higher standard. Only train in a way that will guarantee progress toward your intended goals, but also that you’ll be healthier once you’ve finished. Pursuing an education in the CST system will prove to be enlightening and will show you the way to implement health-first fitness programs into your daily life. But it’s not something that can be learned overnight. It takes daily practice.

A practical way to get started is with Intu-Flow joint mobility, which is like the fountain of youth for movement specialists (and the foundational program of CST). If you don’t have a joint mobility practice, then you’re short-changing your movement, performance, and ultimately, your health. Adopting a daily joint mobility practice is one of the single best training decisions I’ve ever made, and I strongly encourage you to do the same. But honestly, that’s only the beginning! Taking the first step is a big move and requires a little bit of courage. Check out that Intu-Flow link, and follow the beginner program from start to finish. It’ll take about 30 minutes. Don’t let the fact that it’s free trick you into thinking it’s not valuable. This choice to actively pursue health-first fitness starting today could be one of the most valuable decisions you ever make.

In the mean time, if you’re currently experiencing a case of DOMS (or do occasionally), then check out:

15 Ways to Prevent and Heal Muscle Soreness

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CST, CST-KS, NSCA-CPT
Fitness Professional

6 Responses

  1. I can really relate to this. I no longer do these kinds of physical masochistic stunts, but from time to time I still overdo it and pay for it with a few days of DOMS.

    I also agree that CST is definitely an excellent system for health-first fitness. I haven’t gotten too far into Prasara Yoga/FlowFit or clubbells, but I enjoy the philosophy and the Intu-Flow joint mobility exercises. I do wonder if everyone in the CST world understands and values health-first as much as others though. It seems like the marketing on some recent products is very much physique-first with the emphasis on fat loss and muscle building, or performance focused with the emphasis on “tactical” this and that. I hope the health-first approach doesn’t get lost in the shuffle, and sometimes wonder if the marketing could be more sophisticated and intelligent to match the sophistication and intelligence of the products. I do appreciate how you market these products though, with clear information and personal experience.

    • Thanks Duff. I agree – some of the recent TACFIT marketing doesn’t match the CST products reputation, and I wish it were a little more sophisticated, too. Although, the programs and content do represent health-first fitness through and through.

  2. Great stuff as usual John.

  3. In my 30s, the rhetoric and promises of Ken Leistner and the Hardgainers and “SuperSquats” school of thought persuaded me to devote myself to all out, “balls to the wall” squat/deadlift sessions, and I kept at it for more than 3 years before injuries and burnout forced me to grind to a halt.

    I can honestly say that I gave those sessions my absolute all. I would be quivering and shaking and panting like a mother in labor as I labored to complete my last 5 reps,and would sometimes burst into tears (from adrenaline overload) after I racked the bar.(It was a “fond” reminder of my rowing crew races from college, where you knew you wouldn’t win if you weren’t willing to row so hard for 12-15 minutes that you would pass out or throw up over the oar as the shell crossed the finish line).

    And I remember being so exhausted and sore for days afterwards that I would barely be able to walk.

    Even then I knew that something was off – training was supposed to make me better able to meet life’s challenges, not weakened and vulnerable 80% of the time. I needed a better way, and I think John has nailed it.

  4. John,

    wonderful post!

    Duff,

    I agree with you about the marketing. To me it was quite repelling. But if you want to reach a wider audience, you probably have to do what works marketingwise and not what you like. I would also prefer a more sophisticated approach because the marketing style actually made me suspicious about Sonnon and RMAX. “Is this all hype? Is this Sonnon Guru a con man?” It took me a lot of reading in the RMax Forum, blogs and watching the you tube Videos before I finally decided: This stuff is legit! (as Robb Wolf would say).

  5. John,… i work in and around construction sites and i am happy with that, but 6 days ago i forced myself to take a one meter step and now after 4 days of extreme pain i was really hoping you were going to give info on how you dealt with it and how long it took to clear up. When i saw all that writing above i was certain you were going to mention something , but there was no info about it .

    if you could please inform me with whatever you can, i am really worried because i am in a foreign country

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