Do You Need to be Sore to Build Muscle: Understanding DOMS

Written by Kristen Dunsmore

August 10, 2023

There is no such thing as a fixed destination regarding strength training. Strategies that were once considered evidence-based practices get reassessed and occasionally redefined. Training styles that were popular five years ago might be outdated. As coaches, it’s important to stay up-to-date with the latest fitness trends and research advances and be open to new ideas and approaches.

The traditional deload phase of many training programs is a prime example. Deloading is a technique used to gradually reduce the volume and intensity of training for a certain period, usually a week or so, to allow the body to recover from accumulated fatigue. Regular deloads were once considered a necessary strategy for all athletes, but recent research has shown that it may not be true for everyone, or at least not to the same extent. Historically seen as a necessary break in intense training, recent studies like Coleman et al. (2023) challenge this premise. 

So, is deloading an overrated concept, or is there more to it?

Understanding Deloads:

Deloading is typically a week where athletes reduce their training volume and intensity. It’s like a temporary retreat to give our muscles and nervous system a breather, recover from fatigue, and, in a perfect world, come back stronger than before.

Coleman’s Study: A Paradigm Shifter?

Coleman et al.(2023)’s findings have intrigued and upset many in the evidence-based fitness community. Before going any further, it is important to highlight the study has yet to be peer-reviewed. Thus, while it brings new perspectives, we must approach its findings critically.

Study Synopsis:

During the 9-week study, 39 participants, 29 males, and 10 females, with various fitness levels and backgrounds, volunteered to participate. These participants were divided into 1 of 2 groups as follows:

Deload Group: Following four weeks of intense training, this group went into a week-long period of no training following their four weeks of training before completing the rest of the four weeks.

Control Group: This group trained for 9 weeks without any deload.

Training Intervention: The core focus was on the lower body. A bi-weekly routine comprising exercises like the Smith Machine squat, leg extensions, straight-leg toe press, and seated calf raise. Participants performed 5 sets of each exercise for 8-12 repetitions to failure.  

Performance Metrics:

  • Muscle Strength: 1 repetition maximum (1RM) on the Smith Machine Squat.
  • Muscleendurance: Leg extensions performed to failure.
  • Muscle Growth: Changes in muscle thickness were assessed using ultrasound by measuring the distance between the femur bone and the top portion of the vastus lateralis muscle (one of the quadricep muscles).

Both groups achieved muscle growth, but the control group showcased superior strength gains.  The deload group experienced a slight negative impact on strength.

However, context is king.

Critical Analysis:

As per powerlifting benchmarks, neither group was at the elite level. These background differences could skew interpretations.

  • Potential Genetic Factors: Preliminary data highlighted the control group’s muscle mass advantage. Was it a genetic predisposition or a testament to their prior training?
  • Deload Semantics: The study defines deloading as complete cessation-divers from traditional practices focusing on reducing volume and intensity.This strategy is not a traditional method used in powerlifting programs since most athletes continue to train during a deload but with lower volumes and intensities.
  • The Need for Midpoint Testing: A mid-study evaluationmight paint a more granular picture of the effects. Performance assessments were only given at the beginning and at the end of the 9-weeks.

Reactive versus Proactive Deloads

Both reactive and proactive deloads are strategies used in strength training to allow for recovery and prevent overtraining. However, they differ in their application and underlying principles.

A reactive deload is initiated in response to signs or symptoms of overtraining, fatigue, or when an athlete’s performance begins to decline. This approach is more flexible and based on the athlete’s recovery and performance. Reactive deloads come into play when an athlete experiences a decline in performance, such as reduced strength or increased perceived effort for the same workload. They might also be triggered when the athlete feels excessively fatigued, sore, or shows other signs of overtraining. The advantages of this approach include being tailored to the individual’s unique recovery needs and preventing overtraining syndrome by addressing fatigue promptly. However, challenges can arise in pinpointing the exact time to deload, especially for those less experienced. There’s also a risk of pushing oneself too far and encountering potential injuries before recognizing the need for a deload.

Reactive deloads are typically used when:

  • An athlete experiences a decline in performance (e.g., reduced strength, decreased speed).
  • There’s a noticeable increase in perceived effort for the same workload.
  • The athlete feels excessively fatigued, sore, or shows other signs of overtraining.


  • It’s tailored to the individual’s unique recovery needs.
  • It can prevent overtraining syndrome by addressing fatigue as soon as it manifests.


  • It can be challenging to pinpoint the exact time to deload, especially for less experienced athletes.
  • There’s a risk of pushing oneself too hard, leading to potential injuries before recognizing the need for a deload.

On the other hand, a proactive deload is planned and scheduled, irrespective of how the athlete feels. This strategy is integrated into a training program at regular intervals, often after a set number of intense training weeks. For instance, proactive deloads might be scheduled every fourth, fifth, or sixth week, or at the end of a specific training phase, like a strength or hypertrophy phase. The advantages of proactive deloading include its ease of planning and integration into a periodized training regimen, prevention of overtraining through guaranteed regular breaks, and the psychological comfort it offers athletes in knowing there’s an upcoming break. However, its disadvantages lie in its potential misalignment with an athlete’s actual recovery needs. An athlete might feel in top form and not in need of a deload when it’s scheduled. It also may not offer the flexibility to cater to unforeseen events such as illnesses or minor injuries.

When to Use: Proactive deloads are usually scheduled after:

  • A predetermined number of weeks (e.g., every 4th, 5th, or 6th week).
  • A specific phase of training, like after a strength phase or hypertrophy phase.


  • It’s easy to plan and integrate into a periodized training program.
  • It prevents overtraining by ensuring regular breaks and recovery periods.
  • It can be psychologically comforting for athletes to know there’s a planned break.


  • It might not always align with the athlete’s actual recovery needs. For instance, an athlete might feel great and not need a deload when scheduled.
  • It might not be flexible enough to address unforeseen events like illness, stress, or minor injuries.

Broader Implications

Deloading isn’t just about physical recovery; it’s also a mental reset. It’s a temporary pause or reduction in training that allows an athlete to regroup, reassess their goals, and helps to avoid mental burnout. However, given the recent study, the traditional 4-6 week deload protocol should be reconsidered. Perhaps it’s time to pivot towards a more dynamic, intuitive approach to deloading—one that’s more in tune with individual needs rather than a one-size-fits-all timeframe.

Bell et al.’s 2022 article provides detailed deload methodologies among seasoned trainers for those seeking a broader perspective.



































































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