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The truth about sore muscles

Die Wahrheit über den Muskelkater

Here's a quick summary:

  1. Experiencing severe muscle soreness after a workout with weights doesn't necessarily mean you had a good training session that will lead to gains.
  2. You can stimulate muscle growth without experiencing extreme muscle soreness. But apart from that, you should feel something after a hard training session.
  3. Most people experience more muscle soreness when they diet, but that doesn't mean they build more muscle.
  4. To reduce muscle soreness and build or maintain optimal muscle during a diet, you should reduce your calories during most of the day, but increase your calorie intake before, during and after your workout

A love-hate relationship

Should you train a muscle group or exercise if you still feel sore from your last training session? If so, should the workout be different?

If you don't feel sore muscles after a training session, does this mean that the training session was useless? Or is muscle soreness a bad sign, as some trainers claim? For us strength athletes, getting sore muscles is something we have learned to love because we associate sore muscles with a productive training session. But soreness is also something we hate because it can hinder our training. I could write a super scientific paper right now that goes into detail about the specific physiological phenomena that occur when you get sore muscles, but let's keep this article practical. Here is my opinion based on my experience and the experience of my athletes and bodybuilders.

What is muscle soreness?

Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is generally considered to be localized pain in a trained muscle caused by muscle damage that occurred during training.

Delayed onset muscle soreness begins 12 to 72 hours after exercise, depending on the individual. This discomfort is accompanied by swelling (the muscle looks almost inflated), stiffness in the affected joints and a possible loss of strength and flexibility - and therefore reduced mobility of the muscle.

In other words, the generally accepted theory is that when you train with weights, you induce so-called microtraumas in the target muscles, which are basically small injuries that lead to inflammation and pain/sensitivity.

Methods that cause the most muscle trauma - emphasizing negative repetitions, impact absorption, moving very demanding weights on multiple attempts - will result in the most muscle soreness.

While this is true for the most part, the issue is a bit more complex than that.

Muscular without ever feeling muscle soreness

I train an IFBB professional bodybuilder who has never felt muscle soreness in his biceps - and he has very large biceps. The first time he got sore muscles was when we used an occlusion workout with very light weights and no emphasis on tempo.

Training with weights without emphasizing the eccentric (negative) phase of the movement or abrupt stops of the movement with subsequent changes in the direction of movement should not cause much muscle damage. The mechanical load itself is low. But still, it was the type of training that gave him sore muscles in his biceps for the first time in his life.

Similarly, many bodybuilders experience more muscle soreness in the latissimus when they perform a light workout with constant tension and a maximum contraction at the highest point of the movement than when they train the latissimus with heavy weights. So even though microtrauma can indeed cause muscle soreness, a simple stimulation of the catabolic-anabolic process can also cause muscle soreness regardless of the actual muscle damage.

Basically, your body will make a muscle faster or stronger if you stimulate that muscle sufficiently or with the right form of stress. Inducing muscle damage through heavy training is an obvious way to do this, but it's not necessarily the only way.

Slow eccentric repetitions, for example, can stimulate growth via activation of the mTOR pathway even when using light weights. Occlusion training, where the blood supply to the trained muscle is restricted, can also stimulate growth via an accumulation of metabolic products within the muscle and depriving the muscle of oxygen - two things that lead to an increased local release of growth factors such as IGF-1. In both cases, you can initiate the muscle-building process without causing microtrauma. And with both of these methods, the exerciser will experience muscle soreness. Muscle soreness is more than just pain associated with a physical injury to the muscles. Muscle soreness is something your body feels during a post-workout protein breakdown and protein buildup (muscle gain) when the amount of work you've done has exceeded what your body is used to.

I have sore muscles! Does this mean I had a good training session?

Most of us have learned to love sore muscles. We believe that a sore muscle tells us that we have done something that will lead to growth or progress. This perception is reinforced by the fact that the phases during which we feel the strongest muscle soreness are usually also the phases during which we can record the strongest muscle growth. For example, if you have just started training, the simplest training session can put you out of action for days. In fact, I've had clients go to hospital the day after a training session because they thought they'd injured themselves!

The same thing happens when you start training again after a break: You get more sore muscles than normal, and you also build muscle faster at the same time (although this is primarily muscle that you lost during the training break and are now building back up). This can also happen if you switch to a completely different training style, which can also lead to rapid gains. But is muscle soreness necessarily an indicator that you will build muscle? And is a lack of muscle soreness an indicator that your training session was a waste of time?

The answer is "no" in both cases.

Here's a quote from Matt Perryman on the subject: "It just means you've exceeded your body's current work capacity - be it in intensity, duration or both." If you're a beginner or starting to train again after a break, the more you train, the better your body gets at tolerating training. So in these cases, muscle soreness doesn't mean you're stimulating new muscle growth - it just means your body isn't used to dealing with that amount of physical stress. This leads to a biological state where your body mobilizes its resources to fight to maintain its balance. The same is true to a certain extent when you move on to a new training program or exercise. It could be that your body is not used to this type of stress. Therefore, your body is not efficient at dealing with this strain, which is why you feel a little more muscle soreness than normal.

Diet and muscle soreness

If you've ever dieted hard to get super lean, then you know that when you significantly reduce your calories and nutrients, you tend to get more muscle soreness than normal and that this soreness will also last longer. Does this mean that you will build more muscle while dieting? Of course not! It means that your capacity to handle a physical load has decreased due to the reduction in calorie intake. For the same reason, inadequate nutrient intake in the time window around your training session can exacerbate muscle soreness by making your body less 'equipped' to withstand and cope with the physical work. If you want to reduce your muscle soreness, it is therefore very important to make sure you are getting enough nutrients.

Now, if your goal is to lose fat, then you will probably have no choice but to maintain a calorie deficit. In this case, it becomes even more important to invest in a proper pre-, intra- and post-workout nutrition and supplement protocol. This will ensure that you have the necessary nutrients and electrolytes to cope with the stress of your training session during the time surrounding your workout.

What should I feel after training?

Perception has a powerful effect. It's easy to make connections that aren't really based on what you're experiencing. If you are more advanced, then you will tend to feel less muscle soreness. A lot of very advanced athletes and bodybuilders almost never experience muscle soreness after training. Their bodies are so used to training that they very rarely traumatize - i.e. damage - their muscles enough to cause the stress response that will lead to killer muscle soreness.

As you gain experience, your body becomes desensitized to the sensation of pain. Therefore, the degree of muscle soreness you feel does not necessarily represent the gains you will make. Similarly, a lack of muscle soreness does not mean that you have not stimulated optimal gains.

However, the day after a good training session you should have slightly swollen muscles that feel a little tighter and harder and you should be more aware of these muscles. If a muscle that you have trained feels normal or even 'flat' the day after your workout then in my experience this means that you have not stimulated it properly or that you have not given it enough nutrients to grow optimally.

The disadvantages of sore muscles

A few months ago I did a crazy complex that consisted of the following:

  • A1.Accentuated eccentric speed squats with 295 pounds on the bar plus 90 pounds of chains and 120 pounds of weight releases during the eccentric phase.
  • A2.Jump squats with 135 pounds
  • A3.Depth jumps

I performed 6 rounds of these.

I really thought I had done something solid. But the problem was that I got so much muscle soreness in my legs that I couldn't even do a quarter squat movement without weights for 7 days! And after 12 days, my leg strength had not yet returned to normal. In this case, the soreness had a negative impact on my training - both because of the reduced range of motion and the reduced strength. I couldn't do any lower body training or my Olympic weightlifting exercises! It even affected my push presses and standing shoulder presses, as even just standing up with a weight was painful.

This is an extreme case, but even if it doesn't reach this level, excessive muscle soreness can affect your training. This is especially true for athletes who need to move freely and quickly.

Sometimes muscle soreness can prevent you from assuming the correct position during an exercise, making the execution of an exercise less efficient. And performing an exercise with poor form can lead to bad motor habits. Even though muscle soreness can be a pleasant feeling for a hardcore workout junkie, I try to minimize muscle soreness so that my overall workout quality can be increased.

So there is no doubt that muscle soreness can hinder your training. If you are a bodybuilder who uses a split by muscle group, this will be less of a problem than for an athlete who trains at least half of their body during each training session or uses full body exercises.

Sore muscles: live with it

Taking extreme measures to relieve pain, such as using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin, is a bad idea. These drugs have been shown to interfere with the rate of recovery after exercise by masking some of the signals that initiate the rebuilding and repair process. I am also against the use of recovery least initially. By this I mean ice baths, contrast showers and the like. Once you've reached a fairly advanced state and you're well adapted to training, it's fine to use these. However, if you are still building up your capacity to tolerate stress, then you should not use many aids that artificially speed up recovery. Force your body to become good at coping with and recovering from physical stress!

In terms of training, the more often you train - and the more often you train a muscle - the quicker you will become good at tolerating training stress. By training more often with less volume, you will be able to train more often without getting sore muscles.

Flexibility training at the end of a training session is also a good idea. By this I don't mean stretching exercises, but dynamic flexibility training. If you have the time, I would recommend the following a few hours after training: Walking, cycling or performing moderate physical activity to increase blood flow to the muscles. This is particularly effective if your blood is overloaded with nutrients (a good post workout product would be a good option at this point) as these nutrients will then be channeled into the muscles that need them for repair.

Can I train a muscle where I still feel soreness?

Here's what we know so far:

  1. The amount of muscle soreness you feel is not necessarily an indicator of the quality of your training session.
  2. Even if you don't feel sore muscles, it doesn't mean that your training session wasn't optimal.
  3. If you don't feel at least a slightly tighter/tougher feeling in the muscle you worked out, then it's possible that your training session wasn't as effective as it could have been.
  4. Excessive muscle soreness can cause performance issues by reducing your flexibility and/or strength. Excessive muscle soreness can affect the productivity of the following training session(s).

But now the question is whether we can train a muscle where we still feel soreness.

First of all, there are several degrees of intensity of muscle soreness. Sometimes a muscle can feel a little sore, but there is no muscle swelling. The muscle just looks and feels a little harder than normal. It may be a little sensitive to pressure, but there is no real loss of flexibility or strength. At other times, muscle soreness can be so extreme that your mobility and strength are seriously impaired. In this case, the soreness will hinder your training, so it would be a mistake to train the muscle hard again. Now, if the soreness is not so intense that it hinders your capacity to perform at an adequate level, it is perfectly fine - and even advisable - to train with exercises that use the affected muscle. Why? Because increased blood flow and nutrient transportation to that muscle can speed up recovery. Performing a training session aimed at such increased blood flow and nutrient transport the day after an intensive training session is very effective.

By such a training session, I mean performing a pump workout for the muscle where you feel soreness - a light workout that focuses on the quality of the contraction and generating a pump. This training will not further damage the tissue, but will increase the speed of recovery and repair by increasing nutrient uptake and protein synthesis (and a host of other benefits that include cytokines and the repair process). I like to perform heavy strength training with a basic exercise on one day and isolation training for the muscles involved in that exercise at the beginning of the next day's training session.

Training with enhanced feedback (enhanced feedback training)

One area where you can use muscle soreness to your advantage is so-called enhanced feedback training. When it comes to being able to stimulate a specific muscle group to grow, the first step is to learn how to maximize the recruitment and involvement of that muscle group in exercises.

I see a lot of beginners asking where they should feel a specific exercise when they perform it. Often, they don't really feel the muscles that are doing the work - they don't feel the hard contraction that is used to produce tension and force. And if I can't really feel a muscle, then I can't make it grow - at least not to its maximum potential.

The same is often true for more advanced exercisers who can't feel one of the muscles involved in a multi-joint exercise working. For example, they might feel their front shoulder muscles and triceps during the bench press, but not their pecs. In this case, learning to feel the "weaker" contraction of that muscle while performing the exercise is the first step on the way to compensating for a weakness that is holding them back.

One of the benefits of muscle soreness is that you become more aware of the affected muscle. Even at rest, you will feel it more strongly. It is therefore not surprising that you will clearly feel the sore muscle while performing an exercise. This is something that will improve the mind-muscle connection and therefore represents an investment in future gains that you can stimulate due to this improved mind-muscle connection.

Will training a muscle where you feel soreness interrupt the repair process?

That's a fair question, but the answer is "no."
Studies have shown that a second training session for a muscle group (before the muscle has fully recovered) does not disrupt or interrupt markers for the repair process, including protein synthesis.

Muscle repair is not something that occurs over a specific period of time. Your body is continuously repairing and changing its structure. It's not like: destroy the muscle during training, repair it during the following training break and when the repair/growth process is complete, the overall process ends. No, there is a continuous process of building and breaking down protein in your muscles. Think of repair as something that happens 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The body is continuously "working" on its muscles. Training a muscle where you feel soreness does not stop or delay the repair process - it simply changes the tasks that need to be performed during that repair process.

Of course, it's obviously best to rest a muscle in which you feel very sore...almost. Some light physical activity will speed up recovery. Even brisk walking will help. Think of this light physical activity as a way to increase blood flow and transport nutrients to the muscles.

Stay objective and grow

A lot of people use muscle soreness to judge their exercise performance and they continually strive to achieve extreme muscle soreness. If they don't get sore muscles, then they train even harder and more intensely, often resulting in training loads that exceed what their body can optimally recover from. This leads to stagnation and frustration. Understanding muscle soreness a little better will help you stay more objective in your training.

By Christian Thibaudeau

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