Health & Fitness

Muscle Soreness in Exercise

Everyone who trains with weights or exercises, for the first time in a few weeks or months, experiences muscle soreness. Sometimes the pain can be debilitating to the point of exasperation. Not only can muscle soreness be painful, it can also cause unnecessary loss of training time and tend to make you shy away from the exercises that caused it. For beginners it can be the very excuse they needed to renounce their spa membership!

Probing the causes of this kind of delayed-onset muscle soreness has not been an easy task, and many theories have emerged over the years. As a bodybuilder, it will be of great benefit to you if you not only knew what caused this kind of debilitating soreness, but also how to treat it after the fact, or avoid it completely. Here are the major theories that have been proposed:

Muscle Tissue Tears. Minute tears in the actual muscle cell are, according to some scientists, the cause of delayed-onset muscle soreness.

Myofibrillar Splintering. The actin and myosin strands that comprise each myofibril are literally “raked” across one another during eccentric (negative) contraction, according to one theory; thereby causing them to splinter and produce muscle soreness.

Muscle Spasms. Reduced oxygen supply to a working muscle (called ischemia) produces pain and subsequent reflex contraction of a muscle; this in turn causes repeated bouts of ischemia and reflective contraction, producing muscle soreness.

Pressure Changes and Edema. Some scientists have advanced the theory that exercising after a layoff causes a build-up of certain metabolities in the muscle cell, which cause an increased osmotic pressure in the cell. This increased pressure is said to cause edema (water retention) and a subsequent stimulation of the pain receptors.

Connective Tissue Damage. Because of the presence of hydroxyproline (metabolite involved in the destruction of connective tissue) up to two days after exercise; scientists have theorized that delayed-onset muscle soreness may be caused by connective tissue damage.

Lactic Acid Accumulation. Lactic acid is formed during the process of muscle cell oxygen consumption. Its effect on muscle strength is immediately seen in that it causes muscle contracture to cease. Some scientists believe that lactic acid may be the cause of delayed-onset muscle soreness.

Which One Fits?

All of these theories seem to hold water at first glance. However, scientists are very clever people! A fact out of context, a chemical appearing or not appearing, or some other artifact related to the experimental procedure; all have definite meaning to these intrepid sleuths from the Ivory Towers of Academia.

For example; consider the fact that almost no muscle soreness is experienced by those who engagd strictly in concentric types of exercises: This fact alone is justification enough to throw the pressure change theory out the window. Since the metabolic stress of concentric work is about 5-7 times greater than the eccentric portion of a given exercise, you would expect the metabolite build-up and accompanying soreness to be greater during concentric exercises. Such is not the case, and the theory can be discarded as untenable.

Scientists have removed plugs of muscle tissue (called biopsies) from post-exercise subjects and studied them under powerful electron microscopes for possible hints of cellular damage. No such damage has yet been observed, so the tear and splintering theories can also be put to one side.

Perhaps the most popular explanation for delayed-onset muscle soreness, and one that still persists among bodybuilders, is the lactic acid theory. Again, however, our clever scientists came through with convincing evidence to the contrary. They compared the levels of lactic acid in the blood during and after exercise as well as the levels of soreness in the muscles under study. An interesting twist was added to the experimental procedure, however; These factors were compared for subjects running on level ground and running downhill. Level running produced considerable elevations in blood lactate during the run, but produced little if any post-exercise muscle soreness. On the other hand, running downhill produced only minute lactate concentration changes but extreme post-exercise soreness. The major difference between level running and downhill running is that during downhill running the runner must continuously lower himself through eccentric muscle contraction to a considerably greater degree than his level running counterpart. This increased eccentric muscle activity is, the reason for the increased post-exercise soreness, and lactic acid accumulation is not a factor.

So far, only two theories have emerged that in any way explain delayed-onset muscle soreness. The spasm theory holds water because static stretching of an exercised muscle reduces post-exercise soreness considerably. The stretching appears to relieve the muscle spasm, disrupting the vicious cycle that can often last for many hours after exercise. And, the connective-tissue-damage theory also seems to be capable of holding water. The chemical hydroxyproline was found to significantly increase in eccentrically worked muscles about forty-eight hours after exercise. This chemical is released when there is an imbalance of collagen metabolism (collagen is a fibrous protein found in connective tissue). Also, extreme pain was reported by all of the subjects in the experiment as being primarily located near the tendons of eccentrically exercised muscles.

What Causes Muscle Soreness?

The bottom line is that delayed-onset muscle soreness is probably caused by minute tears in the connective tissue of muscles, particularly nearer the ends of the muscles. It may also be true that continued spasms during the first few post-exercise hours causes local pain sensors to react. Due to the persistently reported fact that most muscle soreness occurs in eccentrically exercised muscles, it must also be concluded that such movements are to be avoided.

What Does This Mean to Bodybuilders?

As a bodybuilder, you no doubt have experienced such delayed ­onset muscle soreness. You also know from experience that training hard despite such soreness not only results in continued soreness, but tends also to invite a state of overtraining and eventual staleness. It seems rather superfluous, therefore, to admonish you to avoid this kind of soreness to the extent possible, while at the same time not giving up any of your training time and abilities to engage in intense training.

Yet, despite the good sense such an admonition makes, most bodybuilders plod on, driving ever harder through the very pain they should be attempting to avoid. The common assumption seems to be that such pain is some sort of a signal- “no pain, no gain” – that growth is occurring: It is not. Indeed, this kind of pain is a signal that a destructive process is taking place. Growth and development slows down during such periods.

Another common fallacy among bodybuilders is that the pain they experience near the tie-ins between two muscle groups-for example, near the base of the bicep or near the armpit where the deltoid and pectoralis come together-is indicative that the exercise they are doing is going to help to develop that area in some sort of isolated or localized sense: It does not. The pain that is felt near the ends of such muscles is merely stretched or torn connective tissue, probably resulting from the eccentric phase of the applied exercises. Again, this kind of pain is a warning that a destructive process is in the works- it does not signal growth.

Avoiding Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness

So, how do you avoid this kind of destructive process? By avoiding eccentric movements? Certainly not! By using only light weights? Of course not! Rather, by careful and progressive application of heavier and heavier eccentric movements, performed over a period of literally months and years, the ligaments and tendons, as well as the connective tissues near the tendons can be strengthened such that only minimal pain, if any, will be felt after heavy training. Also, by careful application of pain-reducing modalities-such as stretching, heat, ice, recuperation periods, and proper nutrition; such trauma can be not only avoided, but be made to work for you, rather than against you.

It is now a well-established fact that reverse-action training (eccentric or negative muscle contraction) is of considerable benefit to advanced bodybuilders. To avoid such training simply as a means of avoiding pain is not necessary. Here is what you can do to avoid the pain and discomfort of delayed-onset muscle soreness:

• After layoffs or periods of light training, work gradually into heavy lifting, and particularly if your movements involve eccentric muscle action.

• At first, try to avoid excessive negative movements, relying mainly on concentric movements. As strength increases, gradually add heavy eccentric work.

• After every workout, as well as before, you should do some light stretching of each muscle to be exercised for that day. Each stretched position should be static (do not bounce or ballistically stretch) and held for a period of several seconds, perhaps as much as a minute or two.

• Applying cold (ice packs) to the tendon areas has been shown to be effective in minimizing delayed-onset muscle soreness. This practice is recommended if such soreness becomes a persistent problem, but should be done immediately following the exercise.

• When soreness or lameness does occur, apply heat (hot compresses, shower massage, or whirlpool) to the affected area, and train very lightly until the soreness subsides; concentrating on blood circulation rather than attempting to achieve a “pump.”

With a little care, warming up well beforehand, and following a few easy pointers; muscle soreness can be kept to a minimum.

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Jackie Reed

Jackie Reed