Let's be honest for a moment. Why did you train your arms the way you did last time you were in the gym? How did you choose your movements, your repetition pattern, your training techniques? Chances are your answer is something like, "Because I felt like it." So the question becomes, Are you sure what you did was the fastest way to develop big and strong muscles? Is there a better way to optimize your workout results?
What if you could determine more precisely which training techniques you should use, which movements you should do, when you should change exercises and how long you should rest between training sessions for better recovery and growth? It's all possible, thanks to a physiological occurrence known as muscle soreness.
Soreness vs. Instinctive Training
Instinctive training is very popular, but let's look at it objectively. The name implies that people are born with the ability to understand the needs of their own muscles. An animal's instincts tell it to survive and reproduce. That's inborn. Similarly, a bodybuilder's instincts for proper bodybuilding are supposedly inborn. In other words, we're born with the ability to know exactly which movement to perform, how many reps, how much time to rest and when to change training techniques.
Some bodybuilders claim to have developed their muscles through instinct. You may have noticed, however, that the people claiming to get good results with that method have for the most part had a syringe in their hand along the way.
Bodybuilding is neither instinctive nor inborn. In fact, building muscles is something that's learned, just as writing or talking are learned. Unfortunately in bodybuilding we have no teachers' grades to tell us whether what we do to our muscles will make them grow or shrink.
Instead, we must wait a long while before we can figure out whether we're training properly. And we don't want to wait. We want big muscles now. From what we see in the gym, most trainees wouldn't get good grades for their muscle-building efforts. (That, of course, excludes the drug users, the instinctive bodybuilders.)
Fortunately, you can use muscle soreness as your teacher, a sensation that will allow you to quickly and precisely determine whether your training is correct and how to improve it. Before you can properly interpret and use the signals soreness sends, you must understand what soreness is and what it is not.
Soreness: A Strange Phenomenon
Everyone, athlete or not, has experienced muscular soreness. The sensation of pain is very distinctive, but what's even more distinctive is the way muscle soreness pops up. When you finish working a muscle, it's pumped, it may even burn a little, and it's lost strength, but it's not sore yet.
If you wait a bit, the blood recedes progressively from the muscle, it no longer burns, and its strength is partially returned, but there's still no sign of soreness. Then, after 24 to 48 hours, if you have trained with sufficiently intensity, you feel it. Technically, it's called delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, a term that points out the delay between the causative factor and the sensation of pain.
The Myth of Lactic Acid
The theory that soreness is the accumulation of lactic acid originated in the 1960s, and it's still the theory that's most often evoked, at least in the gyms.
All bodybuilders are subjected to an accumulation of lactic acid during training. It's marked by an unpleasant burning sensation, but the sensation doesn't resemble soreness, neither in the type of pain it produces nor in its duration. The burn due to lactic acid arrives and disappears relatively quickly during training, while soreness can take days to set in and disappear. So what miracle causes the lactic acid, which disappears after the lift, to return to the muscle 24 to 48 hours later?
The defenders of this outdated theory generally respond that the answer is too complicated for the average person to understand. Try asking them this: "A week ago I trained calves with high repetitions. They burned like never before, and yet I have absolutely not felt any soreness. Why is that?" I guarantee they'll have no answer.
It's been some years since scientists specializing in sportsmedicine demonstrated the inaccuracy of the lactic acid theory, but false concepts die hard, especially in the gyms. At least now, when people cite the theory, you'll know something about their level of knowledge on the subject.
What Causes Soreness?
Soreness is due to microtrauma in the muscle fibers caused by training. Unfortunately, scientists have not yet worked out all the details of this phenomenon, but what we do know enables us to better understand how different training techniques affect our muscles and how long to wait before retraining a sore muscle. In other words, understanding and controlling soreness will allow us to be more productive and more scientific in our training.
How do we know soreness is due to muscular microtrauma and not to lactic acid? The most plausible explanation is provided by the theory of microtears in the muscle due to the negative phase of an exercise, the act of lowering the weight. Only half of the fibers used to lift a weight are used to lower it, so great stress is placed on each fiber involved during the lowering phase. A few fibers cannot handle the stress, and as a result they become slightly torn. Of course, the muscle fibers are elastic and resistant, so the weight must be sufficiently heavy and the negative phase sufficiently accentuated to cause the tears.
Why doesn't the sensation of pain arise immediately after training? If you accidentally cut your finger, you feel pain immediately, not 24 to 48 hours later. On the other hand, there are shocks that do nothing at the time of the injury but cause a great deal of pain the next day. That's what often happens at an automobile accident when the pain sometimes occurs many days afterward.
It's the same in bodybuilding. When the tension during the negative part of the movement becomes too severe on a small number of fibers, they're forced to stretch in an unnatural fashion, and some parts give way. The muscle fibers are like a piece of tissue when suddenly stretched, it lengthens a bit but doesn't break. If you look closely at a microphotograph of muscle fibers, however, you can see that some have not suffered while others are completely torn.
Some are ripped out, and others have been stretched too violently and have lost their initial form. The muscle still holds, but its resistance has lessened considerably. Small fissures appear in the cell, leading to two consequences:
- The cell is exposed to all sorts of substances that are toxic to it, such as calcium, as a result of those small fissures.
- The body is forced to repair the tears, which starts an inflammatory response.
As indicated in item 1 above, calcium, which is your best friend during training, betrays you afterward. I'm referring to the calcium (Ca2+) that's found at the periphery of muscle fibers, not the calcium in bones. When you want to lift a weight, the brain transmits the order to the muscles concerned by means of a small electric current. When this current reaches the muscles, it causes Ca2+ to flow out from the reserves in which it's stocked, in the sarcoplasmic reticulum. The outflow of Ca2+ causes the muscular contraction. With the end of the electrical discharge the Ca2+ returns to storage, and the muscle can relax. When a new electrical charge arrives, the process begins again. The greater the outflow of Ca2+, the more muscle fibers will be able to contract with force and the heavier you can lift. Surely you've noticed that when you're angry, which causes a rush of adrenaline/noradrenaline, you can lift heavier weights than you normally can. That's because adrenaline/noradrenaline activates the effect of Ca2+ on the muscle fibers. You don't have to be angry to have such a rush, however. Incidentally, ephedrine supplements cause an immediate increase in muscle strength because they enhance the release of noradrenaline and so indirectly activate the effect of calcium on muscle
When the muscle cell is intact, Ca2+ has a positive effect on the muscle fiber in terms of strength. When it's a little fissured, or torn, the Ca2+ can infiltrate it. Then it becomes toxic to the fiber, amplifying the light damage due to training. This phenomenon is slow-acting. At the end of one or two days the damage inflicted on the fiber begins to cause small pains, which increase. Now you have muscle soreness. The inflammation and infiltration of Ca2+ occur at the same time, and the two factors influence each other.
Not Everyone Gets Sore
Many people, women in particular, almost never experience soreness, except perhaps the first time they weight train. People who are somewhat immune to soreness usually have something in common: They produce a lot of the female hormone estrogen. Indeed, the introduction of estrogen into muscle cells gives them a great resistance and protects them from microtrauma caused by training. So there will be no fissures, no calcium toxicity and therefore no inflammation. Such people are able to submit their muscle fibers to the greatest outrages yet sustain very little damage. Nice, you say? Finally a super anticatabolic substance!
If we take this reasoning to its logical conclusion, however, then people who don't experience soreness should be huge, especially women who train intensely. Yet the result is just the opposite. Women are smaller than men, even though they produce more growth hormone.
The explanation for that phenomenon is found in what we know about inflammation: It's caused by catabolic substances that prepare the muscle for anabolism. Therefore, without catabolism there's no anabolism, just stagnation. Those who have high estrogen levels are in a constant state of stagnation when it comes to muscle growth. What's more, women who take estrogen pills, including some birth control pills, grow more slowly than those who don't.
Soreness seems a necessary evil for muscle growth.