11 September 2012

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, Part 1

Posted by Jody under: Fitness .

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is associated with weight training, but you’ve probably experienced it even if you don’t work out with weights. Have you ever spent a day in unaccustomed activity, like moving furniture, and then the next day, or even the day after, you woke up so sore you could hardly get out of bed? That’s DOMS.
What causes DOMS? Lactic acid? No. Lactic acid is metabolized within a few hours and is long gone by the time you really get sore. Muscles cramping in protest? Wrong again. What’s really happening is muscle damage. Muscle fibers suffer some damage in response to overload, and when that damage heals, the muscle is stronger.

Certain types of movements are more likely to cause DOMS. Consider concentric and eccentric actions. When you do a biceps curl, for instance, the muscle shortens as you lift the weight. This is the concentric action. When you lower the weight, the muscle lengthens to its resting length, but it is still the biceps doing the work, resisting the pull of gravity against the weight. This is the eccentric action. You can actually handle more weight eccentrically, although fewer muscle fibers are involved. And it is the eccentric action that causes muscle damage and soreness. In the same way, if you climb a mountain as part of your hike, it is the downhill (eccentric) portion that makes you sore the next day, although the uphill part is harder on your cardiovascular system.

Why not just exercise concentrically, you ask. There are some machines that let you do that. It’s usually some sort of hydraulic mechanism that has you always working concentrically, so that when you do your biceps curl, it sets up the resistance so you have to push with your triceps (concentrically) to straighten your arm back out. This is promoted as being more efficient because it turns every exercise into a super set, where you work two muscles, or muscle groups, like the biceps and triceps, during the exercise, rather than just working the biceps two ways. True, this does not make you very sore, which delights some health clubs that don’t want to hear you complaining about soreness, but it severely limits your progress, because most of the muscle growth occurs as a result of the eccentric phase, and, yes, of the muscle damage.

The muscle damage leads to inflammation, which persists for some time after the soreness is gone. Does this mean you should reach for the Advil immediately? Maybe not. Although this is controversial, it may be that the inflammation is necessary to the repair and growth process.

It may be best to tough out the pain as best you can, or take acetaminophen (Tylenol), which helps the pain but doesn’t affect inflammation.

But don’t deliberately work so hard you get extra sore, because DOMS reduces strength and range of motion, and will compromise the quality of your workouts until it is completely gone. The good news is that DOMS is protective. The next time you do the exercise, you won’t be very sore at all. This protection lasts for weeks, and even months later, repeating the exercise won’t make you as sore as the first time. (This is if you haven’t done it at all in between.) So DOMS occurs, essentially, the first time you do a particularly difficult exercise, or if you increase your workload excessively.

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