There are very few strings attached to exercising intensely, muscle soreness is one of the few. It’s like having an awesome breakfast with a sub-par coffee – it can ruin the whole experience. The issue that exists is that muscle soreness is a mysterious beast. It’s tough to gather what the soreness actually means and the implications that occur as a result.
Muscle soreness is commonly referred to as DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) and is presented as pain and/or discomfort in a recently trained muscle. It occurs in the period following an exercise bout while the muscle tries to repair itself in order to get stronger. Generally, the soreness is noticeable 24 – 72 hours post workout, with the peak coming at around the 48 hour mark. The intensity of the pain can vary from week to week and person to person.
DOMS has been an area of particular concern, for me, during the football season. I found myself not performing heavy lifts or strenuous bouts of exercise in order to prevent muscle soreness and improve comfort and ability during the games. Recently, I have spent some time exploring my reasoning and decided that real evidence was needed in order to determine how we should interpret and respond to muscle soreness. Should we try to avoid muscle soreness altogether? Or is it a necessary part of muscular improvement?
The common belief is that muscle soreness occurs as a result of microscopic muscle trauma following eccentric exercises.
Eccentric exercises are those that involve the muscle remaining under tension and lengthening simultaneously. For example slowly lowering a dumbbell during a bicep curl, or lowering yourself slowly from a chin up. The reason eccentric exercise causes this micro trauma to the muscle is simply that our bodies are more comfortable with traditional concentric muscle contractions (muscle shortening under tension). From a functional perspective, eccentric contractions under an external load are less common and therefore our muscles haven’t adapted without deliberate training.
The silver lining is that our muscles can adapt to the eccentric load we place on them during exercise and therefore the magnitude of muscle soreness is reduced the more a muscle is trained. As we adapt to the the training stimulus, the degree of soreness is reduced and eventually removed altogether.
Additionally, eccentric exercise can be avoided altogether given the right program. For examples, Olympic weightlifters are able to lift their maximum everyday because they do not have an eccentric phase, they just drop the barbell after the concentric phase.
Severe soreness can indicate a lack of eccentric adaptation by the muscle being trained. It can be a very useful method to analyse which muscles are less trained than others. A friend of mine recently complained that he had done a whole body workout and his abs were experiencing a significantly greater level of soreness. That immediately identifies that his abs have been somewhat neglected and that they need more regular attention in order to adapt to his training regime.
It would be nice if we just avoided soreness altogether. Unfortunately, eccentric contractions are used every single day. From walking down the stairs, getting into the car and through most forms of physical activity. It’s important to train your muscles in all facets to maintain them at peak performance. In fact, there are numerous programs that utilise eccentric training in order to increase total strength.
Evidence suggests that muscle soreness can be managed to reduce its magnitude and impact. Treatment involves increasing the blood flow to the sore muscle:
- Light Activity – Going for a low-moderate intensity walk or cycle will promote blood flow to the lower limbs and temporarily alleviate soreness.
- Massage – either with a second party (physiotherapist/massage therapist) or with an aid (foam roller/sprinter stick)
- Heat – Through warm showers/heat packs applied intermittently to the sore muscle
Unfortunately, there isn’t much research that analyses the peak muscle strength during muscle soreness as its difficult to classify degrees of soreness. However, I have experimented with attempting to lift a maximal load during muscle soreness and have found that the peak strength was not severely diminished. It’s worth an experiment on yourself to prove that muscle soreness is not a valid excuse to have a day off.
The take home message is to train more consistently. Don’t allow your muscles to be detrained and prone for severe soreness the next time around. Additionally, don’t be scared off by the fear of muscle soreness. I know that is a weakness of mine and something that needs improving. Sore muscles mean there is molecular work being done to repair and strengthen the muscle. Although uncomfortable, it’s a means to an end. A much stronger and healthier end.