muscle pain

The Myth & Science of Muscle Soreness

I’m In Pain, Therefore, I’m Gaining Muscle—Not!

Do you use post-workout soreness as a gauge of your training progress?

If so, you may be making a mistake and selling yourself short when it comes to training results.

There’s a common misconception that muscle soreness from exercise is inevitable and necessary to see results. Known as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) many people assume soreness means they are building muscle and getting stronger.

It’s logical, but not necessarily so. For example, downhill running typically causes severe muscle soreness, but it's a poor choice if your goal is to build muscle or increase strength.

The reality is that DOMS is uncomfortable and inconvenient. It impairs strength for days and compromises athletic performance. It’s worthwhile to try to prevent DOMS because along with being painful, it keeps you from training as regularly as you would like, often to the point of diminishing returns.

Other Negative Effects of DOMS

Increased injury risk, particularly in relation to jumping and high force running. DOMS reduces muscle recruitment patterns and the range-of-motion in the joint, decreasing the capacity to efficiently absorb shock.

Women experiencing DOMS may be at high risk of injury because DOMS causes a greater reduction in anterior cruciate ligament elasticity than men.

Decreased motivation to train, especially in novice trainees. For newbies, consistency and establishing a routine is critical. Anything that provides an excuse to skip a workout is a bad thing.

Increased physiological demand of endurance exercise, leading to poorer performance. DOMS compromises performance most when training in high temperatures.

The Science of DOMS

The biggest myth about DOMS is that it is caused by buildup of lactic acid in the muscle. This has been wholly debunked: Lactic acid is the result of high-intensity exercise when you’re working at a rate that is too intense for oxygen to effectively reach the muscles. This leads to the production of lactate from pyruvate—a byproduct of carbohydrate metabolism. When lactate accumulates at a rate faster than the body is able to metabolize, it leads to the buildup of hydrogen ions that cause a burning sensation in the muscle. The muscle loses strength capacity and exercise intensity decreases.

Although lactate is associated with “the burn” it isn’t the same thing as post-workout muscle soreness. Rather, lactate is rapidly metabolized by the body once exercise intensity decreases below the aerobic threshold when oxygen can reach the muscles and it has no effect on soreness.

As to the cause of DOMS, muscle soreness is a result of microscopic tears that take place during workouts. Scientists theorize that damaged muscle cells swell and press on pain receptors, causing soreness. It’s also possible that immune cells that come to clean up microtears in the muscle cause pain upon interaction with damaged tissue.

Other Factors Affecting DOMS

There are several other factors that affect muscle soreness and recovery:

Eccentric Vs. Concentric Contractions: Eccentric contractions are well known for causing DOMS, compared to concentric contractions. An eccentric contraction occurs when you lengthen the muscle, as in the down motion of a biceps curl or squat. The concentric motion is when the muscle shortens, as in the up motion in the biceps curl or squat.

Genetics: The experience of soreness varies by individual with genetics playing a role. Some people experience little DOMS, whereas others get very sore, even after years of training.

Training Background: Training has a conditioning effect on muscle fibers so that once you experience the soreness after the first workout, future muscle discomfort will be minimal or non-existent. Known as the “repeated bout effect,” this principle can be used to minimize the degree of soreness once you start training intensely. For example, in one study, athletes did 10 maximal eccentric biceps curls (which will produce minimal soreness but emphasizes the lengthening motion that causes DOMS). Then three weeks later they did a hard workout of 5 sets of 10 maximal eccentric contractions and had significantly less muscle pain from the second bout than a group that didn’t do the pre-conditioning mini-workout.

Which Muscle Is Trained: The degree of soreness appears to vary by the muscle trained, with some muscles almost never getting sore and others getting very sore.

Little Relationship To Hypertrophy: The degree of soreness doesn’t correlate with muscle hypertrophy. There’s no evidence that individuals who don’t get sore after exercise don’t gain as much muscle.

DOMS Prevention Strategies

Because severe soreness can decrease your force capacity by as much as 50 percent, there’s no reason to intentionally do DOMS-inducing workouts. Preventing DOMS falls under three categories:

#1: Training in a way that minimizes soreness

The first step to overcoming DOMS is to not cause it in the first place. As mentioned above, eccentric motions are most likely to trigger DOMS, so the goal is to design workouts that emphasize concentric motions to build strength and power. For example, the following are all exercises that emphasize the concentric motion but have little-to-no eccentric component:

Sled training

Running up hill or up stairs

Olympic lifting

Deadlifts with no down motion

Preconditioning the muscles can also help: To pre-condition muscles that are highly prone to soreness, pick exercises for all the muscles you will be using during workouts. Do a few maximal eccentric contractions 7 to 10 days beforehand. For example, try calf raises, squats, bicep curls, triceps extensions, bench press, pull-downs, and overhead presses to pre-condition the majority of the primary muscle groups.

#2: Recovery modalities that minimize discomfort

Overcoming DOMS should start as soon as your workout ends. There are several topical creams that have been shown to reduce soreness.

Topical menthol has a cooling sensation on the skin that has been found to reduce muscle pain. One study found a menthol cream reduced soreness by as much as 63.1 percent compared to using ice.

Topical magnesium is another option that has been shown to reduce inflammation associated with DOMS and ease pain.

Massage and foam rolling may reduce soreness while you’re doing them, though the impact is thought to be short lasting.

Concentric-only workouts, whether in the form of cardio or light lifting can reduce soreness by improving blood flow to damaged tissue and lowering the muscles’ inflammatory response. For example, doing concentric biceps curls with a light load after a maximal eccentric workout resulted in a 40 percent decrease in muscle soreness and increases in range-of- motion.

#3: Nutrition to accelerate recovery and counter pain

Any plan to minimize soreness should be designed around balanced nutrition that supplies high-quality protein and a wide variety of nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables. What follows are foods or supplements that show promising evidence for reducing DOMS:

Juice from blueberries, tart cherries, and other dark-colored fruits have been shown to reduce soreness and may accelerate recovery of muscle strength.

Fish oil that provides the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA has been shown to reduce muscle pain and improve range of motion after a muscle-damaging workout.

Caffeine is a powerful performance enhancer that blocks pain receptors and eases muscle soreness after a tough workout.

The branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) and taurine (another amino acid) have been shown to decrease muscle breakdown and improve hydration of muscle fibers for less pain and faster recovery of muscle function.

Final Words: If DOMS have dogging your training, there’s no reason to keep suffering. Avoiding soreness is not the same as avoiding high intensities or heavy weight. By developing a plan to minimize soreness you can train more often, leading to more frequent, consistent improvements in strength and performance.

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