Why Are My Muscles Always So Sore After Working Out?!

Why Are My Muscles Always So Sore After Working Out?!

 ** This is a longer blog version of a post contributed to bicycling.com**

What causes muscle soreness in the first place?

There are two primary causes of post workout muscle soreness:

1.      Increased blood lactate accumulation, leading to an acidic environment and pain.

2.      Swelling of the recovering muscles within their compartments, leading to pressure-related pain.

Why is it that this pain and soreness seems to be so much more prevalent after a gym workout than a bike workout?

            First, almost any novel or infrequent form of exercise is going to cause increased intra-workout and post-workout soreness. Remember those first few workouts and how sore you were? The body adapts to training demands, but it takes some time. This is true regardless of the training stimulus, be is running, cycling, weight training, or anything else. The gym often introduces demands on the body that can be quite different than the requirements of sport or recreational hobby. Many gym workouts require strength and stability in all planes of motion, which is different than the primarily linear requirements of a sport like running (this is not to say that having multi-planar strength is not vital to running, just that that demand is different). Gym workouts are also multi-positional, unlike cycling for instance, with its many fixed parts (feet clipped in, backside seated, hands securely on the handlebars). This piece is is meant to dispel the notion that gym will always be a place that causes days upon days of muscle soreness. Let’s quickly dive a little bit deeper into the causes of muscle soreness and then we’ll look at a few ways to reduce it and start to enjoy the gym rather than dread it!

The first cause of muscle soreness, the soreness and “burning” you feel during your workout, is primarily due to an increase in muscle lactic acid build-up. This causes inhibition of muscle fiber recruitment and leads to fatigue and the immediate soreness that comes from working to fatigue. The muscles required to produce power and force, Type 2 muscle fibers, generated lactic acid at a higher rate than those required for prolonged activity. This is why a quick workout at the gym is often more “painful” than a much longer moderately paced bike ride. Most lactic acid is buffered and moved out of the muscles within five minutes of completing an exercise, which is why the “muscle burn” doesn’t linger like post-workout soreness. At the very most, research indicates that lactic acid accumulation doesn’t last more than 12 hours, and is not responsible for the post-workout soreness most people are familiar with. Additionally, as long as you keep going to the gym, your body will become more efficient at clearing that lactic acid and the intra-workout burning and soreness will be reduced.

The second cause of soreness, the swelling of muscle within their compartments, is the primary cause of prolonged soreness or DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). Every skeletal muscle in the body is housed without its own compartment of fascial tissue. When a muscle experiences the healthy damage that results from strenuous exercise, there is swelling that occurs. This swelling causes the muscle, and all it’s nerve endings, to press against the walls of it’s compartment. It is this compression is responsible for the soreness experienced for 24-48 hours following exercise. It is perfectly normal, and it is this cycle of muscle damage and muscle healing that leads to increased strength and improved athletic performance. If you are sore for more than 48 hours, or this soreness goes beyond what you consider “normal”, it is indicative of having worked out too hard. Just like you wouldn’t recommend a new cyclist attempt a century ride during their first week on the bike, or a marathon after jogging for a week, don’t attempt a massive workout in the gym when it is a new form of training.

            Is there anything I can do to reduce this soreness? Or speed up recovery?

There are a whole bunch of things that can be done to mitigate soreness post-workout. I will provide my top three suggestions, but first I will preach patience. Don’t let post-workout soreness scare you off. The more you train in the gym, the more adapted to it you will become, and the less sore you will be! Keep at it!

Ok, now for the tips:

1.      Spend at least five minutes doing a cool down specific to your workout. Stretch the muscles that you trained, work through basic range of motion drills. If you worked your upper body, don’t expect walking on the treadmill to reduce your arm soreness.

2.      Foam roll after your workout. Foam rolling is effective for increasing local blood flow and moving that lactic acid out of the muscles you just worked.

3.      Get body work on a regular basis. In season, off season, all season, body work is like magic for muscle soreness. Massage and acupuncture are my go-to modalities. They help with both causes of soreness by improving blood flow to clear out pain-producing cellular waste while also mobilizing those fascial tissues that compress healing muscles!

Now get back in the gym! It’s still your set!

David SkolnikComment