When does too much pain equal no gain?
The aim of many gym-goers is to wake up the day after a hectic workout and feel that dull ache in the belly of a trained muscle. This lets us know that we’ve worked the muscle hard enough to stimulate the formation of thicker muscle cells. This feeling is commonly referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and it has been considered a natural component of muscular development for years.
However, our thinking around DOMS and the role it plays in the anabolic process has been somewhat reshaped of late. For instance, we now know that DOMS is caused by micro-trauma to muscle fibre and connective tissue, not the build-up of lactic acid as was previously thought.
Also, the fact that this is, in essence, a response to damaged tissue begs the questions: Is DOMS and other forms of next day soreness a good thing? Well, there’s a growing belief among various health and fitness professionals that mild to severe DOMS may not actually be a sign of optimal muscle growth and development. Rather they view this as a sign of excessive damage to muscle fibres and other structural components that is not conducive to optimal muscular development or performance enhancement.
The truth is that it has been difficult to prove a direct link between muscle soreness, protein synthesis and the degree of muscle fibre damage caused. This means that muscular development can also conceivably occur without associated muscle pain and DOMS. The key factors to consider then are not the presence of pain, but rather the severity, intensity and location of it.
A dull ache in the belly of the muscle and the presence of some degree of discomfort caused by movement is probably the threshold limit of what ‘good’ next day soreness should be, but there shouldn’t be any impairment in muscle function. This dull ache and discomfort is caused by the repair process required to rebuild muscle fibres after a tough workout. However, research shows that the source of the majority of pain mainly resides in the connective tissue that binds muscle fibres together, not the actual muscle fibres themselves.
“The key factors to consider then are not the presence of pain, but rather the severity, intensity and location of it.”
The reason for the pain is the body’s immune response to damage which results in inflammation, accompanied by the release of various chemicals and other substances. This mainly happens in the chemical environment surrounding the muscle tissue rather than inside the muscle cell itself. The combination of these elements will create the sensation of pain as nerve endings in the damaged tissue will become overly stimulated. The repair process can take anywhere from 24 to 48 hours to complete, so you can expect to feel these symptoms for that period of time. However, it doesn’t mean that the repair process has ended once the pain and discomfort has ceased.
If pain and discomfort persists for more than 48 hours and is present throughout the day, whether or not you are contracting the muscle or incorporating it into the act of moving, then you have surpassed the ideal level of muscle damage. This basically means that the overload, intensity, duration or movement pattern of your activity has caused excessive damage to the muscle and will, therefore, take more time to recover.
The immune response is therefore also amplified as the body tries to repair the excessive damage. Sometimes the intensity of soreness can become so severe that it can be debilitating. With this degree of damage, muscles can also become sore to the touch. Repeated bouts of training that result in this severity of next day soreness should be avoided, and should not be seen as indicative of a great workout or training session.
Excessive load and poor training technique can also affect the structural elements around the targeted muscle. This will often present as joint, ligament and/or tendon pain, and will often result in a decrease in range of motion. This is the worst type of next day soreness, as it means that the progression in your programme has not been calculated properly, or that your technique is incorrect. Should you continue to engage in exercise that causes this level of pain and discomfort you will eventually pick up a serious injury.
“…the more consistent you are with your training the less likely it is that you will experience muscle soreness.”
Outside of the localised symptoms already mentioned, there is also the element of general fatigue to consider. This is because intense exercise not only affects muscles, bones, ligaments and tendons but also directly impacts the nervous, hormonal and endocrine systems. Central Nervous System fatigue, for example, can manifest in general tiredness, fatigue, aches and pains all over the body, general lethargy and illness. The body can often feel run down and sore with any of these types of conditions, and they are an important indicator of overtraining. These conditions are normally caused by excessive overload coupled with poor periodisation.
However, the degree and severity of DOMS tends to decrease with improved conditioning, provided any deviation in important factors such as exercise form, technique and the principle of progressive overload remain within acceptable parameters. This means that the more consistent you are with your training the less likely it is that you will experience muscle soreness. You can also rest assured that muscle adaptations occur even in the absence of DOMS, as research has proven.
One other thing to keep in mind is the fact that different kinds of exercises are more likely to cause DOMS. Eccentric contractions, where muscles are lengthened under tension, will cause a more pronounced response than normal concentric (muscle shortening) exercises.
If you do experience DOMS and next day soreness you can help to alleviate it with the following techniques:
Warm-up properly before exercise.
Cool down properly after an intense workout.
Use best practice with regard to progression, by only increasing one variable in your workout by 10% a week (load, duration, volume or intensity).
Do some low-intensity cardio to improve blood flow.
Utilise contract baths or showers to promote blood flow.
Stretch the affected area, using both static and dynamic stretching.
By Pedro van Gaalen, Editor