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From The Desk Of Clarence Bass

Soreness, What Does It Mean?

My Aussie friend Roy Rose judges the effectiveness of his workouts based on soreness. I believe he's onto something. What's more, I don't believe you should train again until the soreness is gone.

When I started training years ago, we were told the soreness that develops in the muscles during the 48 hours following a heavy workout was caused by the accumulation of lactic acid. We now know that lactic acid causes only fleeting discomfort.

We still have a lot to learn, but the current consensus is that muscle soreness is caused by actual damage to the muscle. But that's only the beginning. The damage sets up a chain of events.

The Soreness Process

The precise technical details aren't important for our purposes. (I don't pretend to understand them all.) It's enough to have a general idea of the soreness process.

In heavy weight training, it's the eccentric or lowering phase that is thought to cause most of the damage. (In case you're wondering, it's not practical - or desirable - to eliminate the negative part of the exercise.) As you might expect, the initial damage is mainly to the less flexible tendon tissue and the fast-twitch muscle fibers, which play the primary role in intense exercise. The tissue damage, especially to the cell membrane, allows calcium (and other metabolites) to accumulate in the muscle fiber, which produces more cell damage. The damage sets off a complex inflammatory reaction, which exacerbates the tenderness and stiffness, but eventually promotes healing. Depending on the intensity of the exercise - and the extent of the damage - the soreness usually subsides in 3-7 days.

The Soreness-Hypertrophy Connection

Importantly, the recovery process makes the muscle more resistant to damage from subsequent exercise. What's more, Professors Jack H. Wilmore and David L. Costill, in their textbook Physiology of Sport and Exercise (Human Kinetics, 1994), add a corollary that will interest bodybuilders: "Some evidence suggests that this process is an important step in muscle hypertrophy."

That's the theory on which Roy Rose and I operate. Within limits, we believe soreness is a good sign. It indicates that the complaining muscles are adapting, getting stronger and bigger in response to overload. I don't know if Roy concurs, but I maintain that it's important not to train again until the soreness is completely gone, that doing so would short-circuit recovery and prevent supercompensation (growth). That's the main reason why I do only one weight workout a week.

Consulting The Expert

To test this hypothesis, I contacted Dr. Lucille Smith, a professor at Appalachian State University and an internationally recognized expert on exercise-induced muscle damage.

I told Professor Smith that I lift only once a week, and why. I related that I become sore after every workout, and that I'm usually a little stronger when I come back to the same exercise every two or three weeks. (I'm almost never weaker.)

Clarence gets sore - and stronger - with almost every workout.

Acknowledging that my soreness each time might mean that I'm not training often enough, I asked the Professor whether it is advisable to weight train again before soreness subsides.

Understandably, Dr. Smith didn't commit herself completely - the precise cause of muscle damage and the process of repair is not fully understood - but I found her thoughts encouraging.

"I'm not sure that soreness totally reflects the underlying tissue condition," she responded, "[but] I think it occurs to reduce activity during a critical time of healing. [This] may be related to connective tissue changes we know very little about."

I believe that bolsters my contention that it is not advisable to train again until the soreness is gone, especially in view of the fact that Wilmore and Costill suggest that the "healing" is an important step in muscle growth. Soreness is the body's way of telling us not to interfere with the process.

A Positive Adaptation

Smith seems to agree, because she added: "The thing that impresses me is that you are getting stronger. This has to be a positive adaptation."

She expressed surprise, however, that I get sore every time, "since the research literature suggests that once you have experienced soreness, you are 'protected' for about 6 weeks for the same work intensity. This is called the repeated bout effect. " By way of explanation, she continued, "As you suggested it might be that you are able to work out at a much greater intensity."

I think that's it. I make it a point to train progressively. I try to lift more or add a rep or two in almost every training session. Since I only train once a week, I do my best to make every workout count.

Reinforcing Lucille Smith's comments - and my interpretation - Professors William D. McArdle, Frank I. Katch and Victor L. Katch, in the fourth edition of their textbook Exercise Physiology (Williams & Wilkins, 1996), say the repeated bout effect "does not provide complete protection from subsequent soreness with more intense exercise."

My goal is to increase the intensity - add an additional or new overload - each time I train. Repeated soreness - and the fact that I'm getting stronger - suggest that I'm succeeding.

I'm sticking with my once-a-week regimen - and the Roy Rose soreness test.

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