The only thing DOMS has indicated routinely is:
- I'm working my muscles differently than I have before (usually a new variation of exercise)
- I've significantly increased either the intensity or volume of my training
It only comes while your body is getting used to doing work. When you gradually increase volume or intensity, you may not get any DOMS or it is very mild.
Building muscle or strength is related to the training stress you impose on your body. As you gradually build intensity and volume, your body will respond by getting bigger and stronger.
How do I know if I did enough?
There's a few modes of strength training:
- Work Capacity Training -- a mode that is employed by many body builders in some form or another. Essentially, body builders stay away from their 1RM and work by adding reps or sets, or playing with the timing of the lifts (i.e. the speed in which they move the bar and whether they pause).
- Building Strength -- a mode that is featured by many canned programs such as Strong Lifts, Wendler 5/3/1, etc. The focus is on lifting heavier and heavier weights over time.
- Peaking -- a mode that prepares a strength athlete to demonstrate their strength in competition. It is designed to make the strength athlete ready to handle weights heavier than they normally train with, but still be fully recovered and ready to demonstrate strength.
For people who don't train for a competition, they can be served very well by cycling between building work capacity and building strength. Doug Hepburn was a power lifter who had two routines that he used to get stronger, one was focused on adding more volume (work capacity), and the other was focused on getting stronger. His basic advice was to use one program until you couldn't make any more improvements on it, then switch and use the other program until your progress stopped.
You'll notice that there is only mention of the weight, sets, and reps you need to perform. There is no mention of DOMS. This is because the combination of the training stress and recovery from the training stress is what builds strength and size over time. There's a pretty good treatment of the concepts in the book "Programming for Strength Training" by Mark Rippetoe and Dr. Lon Kilgore.
Training with severe DOMS
There is no reason to skip training just because you are really sore with DOMS. I've found that training even though I'm sore will help flush blood through the sore muscles and cause the DOMS to dissipate during your training (and sometimes afterwards). Many times I've had no loss of strength or ability just because I was sore.
If you find your ability to do work is diminished, then your muscles are fatigued. This is related to the energy stored in the muscle being depleted or the muscle needing more time to completely recover. In this case, temporarily lowering the volume (called a deload) can help you get the blood flowing and keep practice up while still allowing your body to recover.
"No Pain No Gain"
This really came about as a rallying cry for trainers and coaches to get their clients to push through the way they feel and do the work they need to get done. It's more about motivation than any guiding aspect to know when you've trained hard enough.
The problem with training until you feel pain all the time is that you end up compounding fatigue, which not only causes your technique to break down, but puts your body into a state where it is prime for injury.