Though few physique building enthusiasts enjoy the sore muscles after workout phenomenon, this occurrence (as long as it’s only mild) should be embraced by the athlete, because it’s very important and very telling of what’s going on.
Sore muscles following a workout play a very vital role; this isn’t just a nuisance to put up with. Soreness comes in different grades: mild, moderate and severe. The name given to any of these grades is DOMS: delayed onset muscle soreness.
DOMS is a naturally occurring phenomenon, and is to be expected after a passionate weight lifting workout. It becomes a problem, though, when it reaches severe or disrupting levels.
What DOMS means is that after, for instance, a hardcore leg workout, the athlete goes home and feels just fine, and may be quite full of vigor for the remainder of the day, springing up and down the staircase.
The next morning as he gets out of bed, he can’t believe what’s happening: His legs are brutally sore. The soreness is blaring as he makes his way down the stairs to the kitchen, and persists all day.
Another common scenario with DOMS is that the next day, the athlete continues to feel fine, though there may be a tinge of aching in the legs, but nothing that he really takes notice of.
However, two days after the training session (e.g., Wednesday morning after training Monday morning), his legs are screaming with soreness. After sitting for a while on the job, he gets up and really feels the effect, and nearly limps to the water cooler. This is excessive, and training sessions should not produce this result.
Severe DOMS: The muscles are swollen. The muscle cells are leaking proteins into the bloodstream.
A person should never perform heavy or high powered, intense exercise during severe DOMS, even if a training session is scheduled at that time, as he or she will not be able to work out with the strength that is usually exerted. Such muscles aren’t just in desperate need for recovery, but they are in a weakened, injury prone state.
To clarify more, this trainee should avoid the deadlifts, squats, leg presses, squat jumps, box jumps and track sprints (all fast-twitch muscle fiber work) until the muscles have recovered or even almost fully recovered.
On the other hand, slow-twitch fiber work is acceptable, such as pedaling on an elliptical machine for an aerobic workout, which will also loosen up the muscles and relieve some soreness.
What if one attempts to exercise fast-twitch fiber style while still in the midst of severe muscle soreness after working out a day or two earlier? The risk of injury is heightened, because, as mentioned, the muscles are in a weakened state—up to 50 percent weaker than usual with severe DOMS following intense, fast-twitch-centric exercise.
Compounding the problem with severe delayed onset muscle soreness is if the athlete is sleep deprived, and further compounding will result from dehydration/poor nutrition.
The muscles may be so sore that they are tender to the touch. Any muscle group is susceptible to DOMS with enough overload; this includes the biceps group.
Simply using a leg press machine that has not been used before can be all it takes to cause a blistering DOMS. The athlete typically doesn’t realize this until a day or two after performing three failure sets on the new machine.
What Causes Muscle Soreness?
A better question is: What does not cause this? So many people think that this thing called lactic acid is what causes muscle soreness. It is not.
Many fitness trainers continue to believe that “lactic acid causes muscle soreness” and will tell this to their clients.
DOMS is partially caused by damage to the muscle fibers. This sounds like the obvious explanation, but there is more.
Microscopic analysis of muscle fibers, following an intense workout, reveals that cell membranes are ruptured; other structural components of the fiber are also damaged.
However, this observed damage comprises less than 5 percent of the tissue, though the damage is present throughout the fiber rather than in one localized region.
This damage causes inflammation and leads to the feeling of soreness. First of all, fluid accumulates, causing the swelling mentioned prior. This causes pressure.
In addition, white blood cells from the immune system respond to the signal of the damaged tissue and enter the muscle cells, and release chemicals.
These chemicals activate pain receptors. This chain of events has nothing to do with lactic acid (lactate). Lactate is formed as a response to intense training and builds up in the muscles.
However, lactate “clears out” soon after the training concludes, and is gone by the time DOMS begins setting in.
Learning that training causes “damage” to muscle fibers may sound a bit undesirable, but these microscopic tears force adaptation, which is what the athlete or physique enthusiast wants.
The desired adaptation may be in the form of a faster sprint, a harder throw, a heavier lift or a larger muscle.
It’s during recovery, not training, that this adaptation occurs: “Muscles grow during rest.” Rest includes sleep; sleep is prime time for muscle growth in the athlete.
In short, the very goal of a person who wants bigger muscles is to induce micro-tears in the muscle fibers. These tears lead to DOMS. Delayed onset muscle soreness means that there are micro-tears.
However, too much of a good thing is a bad thing; too many tears means severe DOMS, which puts muscles in a compromised state, interfering with recovery, including recovery for the next workout.
How To Relieve Muscle Soreness
The obvious first step is to take the next day off. After a hammering leg and back session, the next day should be cardio, rather than a chest and arm workout. In fact, cardio (jogging, pedaling, swimming) would be more beneficial than complete rest.
It’s debatable whether the cardio can include high intensity interval training (HIIT), since sprint-level running, hill dashing or intense pedaling will hit the fast twitch fibers that have been torn from the previous day’s squats, leg presses and deadlifts.
This may come down to how the athlete feels on the treadmill or bike. If it’s a dreadful feeling, then HIIT is not advised. Lighter cardio is, because it will make the muscles more fibrous which will help them tolerate the next strenuous workout.
Light cardio, even moderate, will loosen up the muscles, reduce feelings of stiffness and just provide an overall better feeling to them.
The athlete may want to consider brisk walking or even slow jogging over the same perceived aerobic exertion of pedaling a stationary bike, if his quadriceps are reeling from yesterday’s squats, since the quads are recruited more during cycling than in walking or jogging.
Two intense, big-compound-lift workouts should not occur two days in a row. A good rule of thumb is for one to check if the muscles that were worked the day before or two days ago are sore to the touch.
A hamstring that’s sore to the touch means don’t do HIIT. It also means don’t do deadlifts, squats, weighted walking lunges or hamstring curls. Large muscle groups take longer to recover from damage than do small groups.
Minor soreness going into a warm-up is nothing to be concerned about, and often, this clears up after or even during a workout. If noticeable soreness is present after a warm-up, this is a clue that the planned workout should not be all-out effort.
Rather than attempt heavy or intense lifting, or even HIIT, with noticeably sore muscles, it’s better to go light that day and then use the next day (when muscles are more recovered) for a full-blast workout, which will produce better results for the body despite the one-day delay, than if it’s attempted “on schedule” with weakened sore muscles.
Reduce Muscle Soreness With Adequate Sleep And Hydration
Proper sleep and adequate fluid intake will go a long way in muscle soreness recovery.
The best time to sleep may very well be between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. for seven and a half to eight hours, since most human growth hormone is released prior to midnight. This hormone is essential for muscle growth recovery.
Though this sleep schedule is not feasible for many people, one should at least aim for a bedtime of maybe 10:30 p.m. to around 6:30 a.m., rather than going to bed closer to midnight.
Water intake is absolutely essential, and one can be dehydrated without being thirsty.
If urine is deep yellow, you’re dehydrated. If it’s clear, you’re not. How much water the muscle builder should drink every day is debatable. Many swear by a gallon a day. It sure won’t hurt.
Muscle soreness after working out is to be expected in those trying to build lean mass, especially when they change up their program or even try an unfamiliar piece of equipment.
Mild DOMS is fine, and is actually a good clue that the muscle fibers have been stimulated to make an adaptation that will result in the desired goal of hypertrophy.
Too much DOMS will interfere with progress by increasing injury risk, delaying too many workouts and causing the athlete to perform submaximally. Plenty of hydration and optimal sleeping habits are crucial for helping damaged fibers heal and grow stronger.
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