No Pain, No Gain? – Part 1: What really causes muscle soreness?

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (or DOMS for short) is the feeling many of us have experienced at some stage or another after training (particularly with weights). A lot of us not only experience this phenomenon but also swear by it as a gauge of progress and an indication that we must have recently trained hard. The saying ‘No pain, No Gain’ is vocalised in unison by many exercisers. Some go as far as to label themselves as masochists who wait in eager anticipation for their next bout of exercise induced trauma.

So what exactly is DOMS and what causes it? Should we seek it out in our training to ensure progress? How can we relate what our body feels with the effectiveness of the activity just performed?

This (four-part) article will seek to answer these questions and others in our quest to find out how much of a contributor soreness is to our overall progress in the gym, and how we can come across it. The content examined has relevancy towards most forms of training, but we will be looking at the effects that are typically experienced from strength training specifically. Before we go any further however, let’s look at what muscular soreness (or more specifically DOMS) is and what causes it.

 

What is Muscle Soreness?

DOMS can be defined generally as local pain in trained muscles as the result of exercise. The rate at which DOMS is experienced varies from person to person, but generally occurs between 24-72 hours after training. Muscular damage or micro-trauma is usually found in the presence of DOMS but not in all cases (as we will see later). There are a number of theories on the mechanisms which cause DOMS – although none of which have been completely substantiated by research. The symptoms of post-exercise muscular soreness are clear however. You have probably experienced some of these yourself from time to time:

DOMS

– Inflammation and swelling around the muscles that are involved (similar to a ‘pumped’ look)

– Stiffness in joints connected around the inflicted muscles

– Possible loss of strength and range of motion (ROM) in the affected muscles

 

So what causes DOMS?

Methods that can cause the most DOMS include; heavy or accentuated eccentrics (i.e. slow lowering of loads and producing greater muscular time under tension), high shock absorbing movements (i.e. plyometrics), and performing several attempts at handling very challenging loads. These training methods will tend to produce the most soreness in individuals. While these methods are the common culprits of soreness, there is more to be seen within the overall scope of DOMS and there is a bigger picture to look at. Without getting too in depth and using too much scientific jargon, DOMS is usually experienced by the body when it is exposed to a stress that it was not prepared well enough to handle. Or in other words, soreness is mainly caused by the body not being ready for the stimulus being imposed on it – and there is the key phrase: ‘The body not being ready’. It is clear that there are certain forms of exercise that can induce DOMS but there are broader underlying factors that will determine how sore a given individual may feel after training. These factors will increase the severity of DOMS if not given proper attention:

  • Lack of Rest & Recovery
  • Inadequate nutrition
  • New exercises or physical stimuli

 

Let’s explore these 3 common factors a little bit further:

Lack of Rest & Recovery:

delayed-onset-muscle-sorenessYou don’t grow or adapt when you train, you grow and adapt when you recover. If your body is in a suboptimal state and lacks appropriate recovery, you could be at risk to overtraining and heightened muscular damage.  Resulting soreness increases the further your body is away from its most prepared state. Sleep is a crucial element in the recovery process. Appropriate down time with reduced stress levels is necessary to perform at your best and induce optimal recovery. This is why elite level athletes are often put in calm and uninterrupted environments before a big event. They need to ensure they are fully recovered and that overall stress levels are minimised. Many people find yoga, meditation and other relaxation based activities to also be effective in reducing stress and enhancing overall recovery. Other methods specifically used to facilitate and speed up recovery include contrast showers/baths, lighter forms of weight training (more on this later), restorative massage, moderate to low intensity cardiovascular exercise, and salt baths to name a few. It’s not necessary to integrate all of the above with your training (especially if you’re a beginner). With that said, the more advanced you become with your training, there will be more stress placed on the body and more time and emphasis will need to be placed on your recovery methods. It should be noted that taking common pain alleviators and pharmaceuticals such as Aspirin and anti-inflammatories can have a masking effect on DOMS. These substances can interfere with recovery by nullifying some of the signals that initiate the building and repair processes in the body. If you are injured, it would be wise to not rely long term on pain killers to nullify the signals of distress that your body is sending you.

 

Inadequate Nutrition:

If you are not getting in enough food (or more so energy) to recover, you will experience heightened soreness and for longer than if you were getting in adequate amounts of calories. This is why someone who is dieting will experience greater soreness from the same exercise than if they were not in a deprived caloric state. The pre, peri and post workout window of time is particularly important for minimising muscular micro trauma and soreness. The body needs readily available energy and nutrients to handle the higher level of stress that is imposed on the body during this time. Adequate carbohydrates are of particular importance during this period to help augment the severity of muscular breakdown. Sufficient amounts of electrolytes, salt and other minerals (especially magnesium) are also required to help mitigate the effect of DOMS. Dehydration and excessive alcohol consumption leading up to a workout can also compromise the response of the body to the stress that is to be imposed.

 

New exercises or physical stimuli:

When I say physical stimuli, I don’t just mean exercises and weight training. Have you ever been sore from a massage? Have you ever over-stretched and felt sore the next day? What about a long and uncomfortable aeroplane flight? Yes, bad posture can induce muscular soreness as the body is overloading the wrong muscle groups to keep you upright in the battle against gravity…. not to mention the restricted blood flow to areas that may be under load or stress. These are all unfamiliar demands placed on the body that can lead to localised soreness.

As far as exercise (in particular weight training) is concerned, there are the main culprits of DOMS we alluded to earlier – slow lowering of loads, plyometrics, and several attempts of heavy loads. These training measures can easily cause micro-trauma to the muscles involved and the onset of DOMS. Yet, there are also some less obvious afflicters that can cause muscular soreness in the absence of micro-trauma as well. An example of this came to my attention when I once when I trained a bodybuilder. The guy had big lats but never experienced soreness in that body part. Despite increasing the size of his lats by increasing his reps and loads on pull-up and row exercise variations over time, he never once got sore. Then we changed to doing some light work during one of his training phases. Constant tension and peak contractions were performed with smaller isolated movements. After the first few workouts of this phase, his lats were often sore for 3-4 days afterwards. So while micro-trauma can cause soreness, simply stimulating the muscle mass in different and lower loaded ways can cause soreness too. Another example of this is seen in occlusion training where blood flow is restricted to a working muscle group – imagine doing bicep curls with a restrictive resistance band tied around your upper arms. There can be soreness as a result of occlusion training, but this soreness is induced by the lack of blood flow and nutrients to the working muscle rather than complete micro tearing of muscle fibres.

140724151059-doms-restricted-story-topIn both of the cases above, it’s easy to see that you can initiate DOMS without causing muscle micro-trauma. In both of the above methods subjects induced soreness from doing exercise variations that seemed innocuous.

As you can now see, soreness is more than just pain associated with the physical trauma of the muscles. Soreness can be experienced simply when the stimulus exceeded what your body is used to handling. Ever gone away on an extended holiday to find that you are sore for the first week back at training? It just means your body has become unfamiliarised with normal exercise and that you’ve outdone your new lowered capacity for training. Basically, when you’ve stimulated a muscle enough with an appropriate form of stress, your body will adapt and make you stronger – sometimes resulting in associated soreness, sometimes not. Although strenuous weight training can create damage to associated muscle fibres and cells, it has never been proven that this is a necessary and sufficient condition for increased strength or muscular development.  As we saw in our example with the bodybuilder, his repetitions and loads greatly increased over time but he never complained of any soreness in his lats, despite the fact that they were doubling in size.

 

Stay tuned for part 2 of this article: ‘Is muscle soreness an accurate indication of how hard you work out?’

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