We've all the seen the fitness memes depicting delibitated exercisers. Our students often commiserate over the pain of climbing stairs after a heavy weight training session. But what is going on here? And what is this muscle soreness trying to tell us?
First, let's see the text book definition --
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is the pain and stiffness felt in muscles several hours to days after unaccustomed or strenuous exercise. The soreness is felt most strongly 24 to 72 hours after the exercise, thought to be caused by eccentric exercise (eg. the lowering phase of a squat or push-up), which creates micro-tears to muscle fibers. After such exercise, muscle adapts rapidly to prevent muscle damage, and thereby soreness, if the exercise is repeated.
First change soreness. Remember when you first began exercising? You may have been so stiff, so sore, that you could barely move for days. Maybe even a week. Hardly a surprise that this experience puts many reluctant exercisers off. But, as many of our students assure new members, "It gets better." As your body adapts, the soreness does not last as long.
Future change soreness. So you've gotten over the hump and are well into your new exercise routine. Why are you sore after some workouts and not sore at all after others?
Going back to the definition of DOMS, your muscles are responding to 'unaccustomed' exercise. If you were to hit the gym and do a basic bench press and chest fly routine at the same weight, same tempo, same number of repetitions, for four weeks, by the fourth week it is likely you will not feel any soreness. Your body has adapted. In some sense, this is what we are seeking to achieve through exercise -- to adapt to a stimulus and get stronger in response to the stress that stimulus has introduced.
But we don't do the same routine. Our daily demands shift and so, too, our workouts should change. After you've grown accustomed to one box height, you may try a new one when working on box jumps. Now, remember how that lowering phase of a squat (the eccentric exercise) is what causes micro-tears? You'd better bet a 6" height differential on that box is going to be felt the next day as that preparatory squat before lift off gets a little deeper, a little more sprung. Heavier weight on a barbell, change in tempo, larger kettlebell -- all of these will shift the stimulus within a workout and likely create soreness.
Is soreness a sign of a good vs. bad workout? It is easy to get hung up on this one. A lack of muscle soreness is not an indication that you have not worked hard enough. Similarly, muscle soreness is not a sign of a "good" workout. Soreness is simply a sign that something in your workout was varied and your muscles are responding to that change. Do we need to change our workout every single time? Not at all. If you are training for a 5K run, you will need to run more than once to prepare for your event. And by the way, what Olympian has ever crossed a finish line second and said in their post-event interview, "I should have trained to be sorer?"
Is it safe to exercise when still sore from the last workout? Sure! So long as the soreness is felt as general stiffness that does compromise your form or ability to move with your normal range of motion, it is a good time to focus on core stabilizing exercise (eg. pilates, yoga) or moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise (eg. brisk walking).
When soreness goes bad. Joint pain, pinching or tingling sensations that radiate, and limitations in your normal range of motion are not associated with DOMS and need to be addressed. Even the most conscientious exerciser may occasionally sacrifice on form or overdo it. When this happens, I ask students to reach out as soon as possible. Working with a qualified fitness professional to assess next steps for treatment crucial. This conversation often ends with a referral to an orthopedic doctor, physical therapist or bodywork specialist and an agreement that the student does not return until they have been cleared for exercise.
An important reminder, because this is a major bug bear of mine -- unless your personal trainer is also a medical professional, they are not qualified to treat a medical condition. The best advice we can offer is to rest, and in some instances, heat, massage, ice, and/or elevate the affected joint, muscle or similar, until you are being treated by a medical professional. Please do not ask fitness instructors or personal trainers for medical advice. It is beyond their remit. If a fitness professional who does not hold any medical qualification offers to treat you or dissuade you from seeking a medical opinion, this is not someone you should trust.
Be safe and squat on, my friends!
Disclaimer: Fit Club is not a medical doctor and the information contained herein should not be taken as medical advice. These are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any health problem. Recommendations by Fit Club are not intended to replace the advice of a physician or health professional. Please consult your physician or a health professional before beginning any diet or exercise program.