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“We conclude that muscle hypertrophy is the result of accumulated intermittent increases in [muscle fiber protein synthesis] mainly after a progressive attenuation of muscle damage.” Damas et al, The Journal of Physiology, online May 24, 2016

Muscle Growth Comes Only After Damage Repair

Why I Welcome Muscle Soreness

Professor Stuart Phillips Comments

Rarely do we come on a new study dealing with something every musclehead has wondered about. All weight trainers have experienced muscle soreness—and wondered about its role in building muscle. Scientists have long puzzled over it as well. “Because the factors associated with delayed-onset muscle soreness are also potentially important in stimulating muscle hypertrophy, DOMS is most likely necessary to maximize the training response,” distinguished exercise physiologists Jack Wilmore, PhD, and David Costill, PhD, wrote in the third edition of their classic textbook Physiology of Sport and Exercise (2004).

Fast forward to 2016, and we are still learning about how it works. “The processes…are still surprisingly obscure,” researchers from Brazil and Canada wrote in introducing their new study of the mechanics of muscle building.

Scientists have found inconsistencies in short term and long term increases in muscle fiber volume. The day-to-day relationship between muscle damage and muscle hypertrophy remains unsettled.

Some researchers have proposed that muscle damage is related to and a prerequisite for muscle hypertrophy. Others note that muscle damage is rapidly reduced, raising uncertainty as to its role in long term resistance training.

The researchers in the new study (including Dr. Stuart Phillips from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, whose work has been discussed here before) hypothesized that the relationship between muscle damage, muscle fiber protein synthesis, and muscle hypertrophy changes as training progresses. That’s essentially what they found. We’ll look at how they did it and what they found. (I’ll also tell you about my own experience with muscle soreness.)

Using state-of-the-art technologies, they measured changes in muscle fiber protein synthesis, muscle damage, and cross fiber thickness in 10 young men (untrained for at least 6 months) over 10 weeks of resistance training twice a week. The men performed three sets of leg presses and leg extensions, 9-12 repetitions to volitional fatigue. Loads were adjusted to stay in the rep range.

Muscle biopsies were taken to measure the changes after the first workout, at three weeks, and at 10 weeks. At each stage, measurements were taken before, and 24 and 48 hours after training.

Simply put, they measured changes in muscle damage, muscle fiber growth, and overall muscle size as training progressed.

What they found is interesting—and complicated. I’ll give you my translation—and then the summary explanation of the researchers.

Muscle fiber growth—and muscle damage—were greatest after the first training session, but cancelled each other out. So there was no hypertrophy. Muscle damage subsided—and muscle fiber growth continued--at three weeks and 10 weeks. Muscle hypertrophy was the highest at week 10. Muscle damage and muscle growth combined to produce muscle hypertrophy.

And now the more scholarly and technical summary of Damas et al.

“We propose that the initial resistance exercise bout(s) promotes a robust but potentially non-hypertrophy-directed but instead ‘repair-oriented’ increase in [muscle fiber protein synthesis]; nonetheless, early on in the resistance training program, adaptations in the changes in [muscle fiber protein synthesis] after resistance exercise occur to promote primarily muscle hypertrophy. Thus, muscle hypertrophy is the result of accumulated increases in [muscle fiber protein synthesis]…mainly after [progressive] attenuation of muscle damage.”

So it seems that Drs. Wilmore and Costill were correct that muscle soreness is most likely necessary to maximizing the training response.

Interestingly, the researchers end the discussion portion of their report with what might be termed a hanging chad. While acknowledging that muscle damage results when the stress of resistance training is novel--when a new exercise program is introduced—they add that their data indicate that “muscle damage does not have a role in skeletal muscle hypertrophic responses during prolonged resistance training.”

That may be true, but my experience is that muscle soreness is an important factor in long term training success. Soreness signals change and progress. And progress keeps you motivated.

I often confide to Carol how sore I am after a workout. She laughs and says, “That’s good—isn’t it?” (A little pay back.) Before you know it I’m sitting down to plan the next workout.

Welcome Soreness

“People don’t grow old. When they stop growing, they become old.” Words to live by from alternative medicine specialist Deepak Chopra.

I always strive to improve—and welcome soreness. Soreness is the body letting us know that we are challenging our muscles. That we are breaking new ground, adapting to a new stress.

Change is good—and change makes you sore. New movements done with effort cause soreness.

I’m constantly looking for new challenges, new ways to improve. Dr. George Sheehan, long distance runner and beloved fitness philosopher, turned to biking late in life when his running times began to fade. He rejoiced that his body thought he was good at it. He was making progress again.

I’ve done somewhat the same thing by adding the Concept 2 Ski Erg to my long-term use of the C2 rower. The reverse of rowing, the ski erg bends the body rather than extend it, activating a new set of muscles. While the ski erg rarely makes me sore, the assistance movements with weights do make me sore. The decline dumbbell press (shown here) is an example of a new stress I’ve added to improve my Ski Erg times. The soreness suggests that it’s working. And it is; I'm winning the competition with myself, getting better little by little.


I’ve done declines before, but it feels like a new movement when you haven't done it for some time.
 With a little imagination, you can keep changing or rotating exercises almost endlessly. Your body will respond to even small changes.

When you stop making progress, change. Photo by Wayne Gallasch

The bottom line is that any new stress on muscles causes soreness. Soreness signals change. It says the muscle building process is ongoing. That some part of your body is adapting to overload.

Change is a key factor in maintaining motivation over the long term. Most exercises stop working after a while—and change gets things going again. Starting over keeps training interesting—triggering a new bout of soreness—and growth.  Often a small change, in rep range, stance or grip for instance, will kick start a new cycle of gains.

Challenge yourself. Stay motivated. Change. Welcome soreness!

November 1, 2016

Comment on this article: FEEDBACK

Professor Stuart Phillips Comments

Dear Clarence: I must apologize for not getting back to you sooner. Your e-mail ended up in by SPAM-filtered email that I check about once a month to make I haven’t missed anything. Anyway, onto your question. Personally and scientifically I see no reason to invoke ‘damage’ (in the way it’s traditionally used) leading to soreness to be an indicator of the effort needed for successful adaptation to resistance training. There’s not a study out there that shows damage is necessary for adaptation or growth despite a claim (speculation) made in a 2004 textbook. The quote you use has been, I think misinterpreted

“We propose that the initial resistance exercise bout(s) promotes a robust but potentially non-hypertrophy-directed but instead ‘repair-oriented’ increase in [muscle fiber protein synthesis]; nonetheless, early on in the resistance training program, adaptations in the changes in [muscle fiber protein synthesis] after resistance exercise occur to promote primarily muscle hypertrophy. Thus, muscle hypertrophy is the result of accumulated increases in [muscle fiber protein synthesis]…mainly after [progressive] attenuation of muscle damage.”

What the quote (and the entire study) shows is that only after damage (and the associated soreness) is attenuated does the muscle protein synthetic response begin to mirror hypertrophy. The interpretation is that the damage and the associated response is directed toward damage repair, not hypertrophic adaptation. We spend a great deal of time in graduate exercise physiology class talking about stimuli that are sufficient and necessary for hypertrophy. Damage is definitely sufficient, but it’s not necessary. The association of soreness with adaptation is no mistake, but the soreness doesn't mean good (or better).

If you know of a study that I'm missing that would indicate damage is needed for growth or adaptation then I'd be happy to see it.
Best regards,


Stuart Phillips - Kinesiology, McMaster University

* * *


Thanks for your detailed response.

I don't know of any study, but I do know that I am sore in one way or another after most workouts. I attribute it to some change or new stress--trying to improve in some way every workout. Explained in my article.

It may also be because my workouts are spread apart. 2 weight and 2 aerobic--all different--spread over two week. So each workout is done every two weeks. Allows complete recovery and makes me happy.

Don't know of any one else who does it that way, but it has worked wonderfully well for me. I've been training for 65 years. See my results at 79: http://www.cbass.com/ClarenceBass79.htm

Don't want to waste your valuable time or pick a fight, but would appreciate your thoughts on why I'm sore in some way or another after most workouts. Do you see it as bad or counter-productive?


* * *

Clarence: Thanks for the email.

Soreness is not just a sign of novelty but that there is some kind of inflammatory process going on. I won't say that it's not a sign that damage has occurred, but that soreness/damage isn't necessary for adaptation. So it's sufficient but not necessary.

Even in my own routines a different foot position in a squat, a wider stance, a deeper lowering phase... can beget soreness despite squatting every week. But I don't seek that out as I just don't think it's needed.

Power to you if you like the soreness. I'm not saying it's not sometimes enjoyable, but it takes (I find) longer to recover from soreness than it did when I was young. I have a theory this is due to an age-related slowing of muscle collagen turnover.

Why do you get sore? I'd have to assume that each workout is for you either novel, a further loading the volume greater than last time, and/or perhaps you are just more susceptible (there is a genetic propensity to get muscle damage). Is it bad? No! You like it, most (including me) would rather not have it!

By the way, still looking good sir!



* * *

Thank you, Stuart.

We are going to post our exchange next month at the end of my article. It will help our visitors better understand your study and my approach to training. As I wrote in my book Great Expectation, I strive to signal my body through exercise that I'm still growing. As Crowley and Lodge wrote in their book Younger Next Year, it's grow or decay.

My best to you and your colleagues at McMaster University.


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