Pain and Exercise

No Pain, No Gain ???

When just starting out with your fitness program, it is very common to initially experience quite painful muscle soreness as one of your body's first reactions to your return to a more active lifestyle. This can be such a discouraging experience for some people that it may make them think about giving up their fitness endeavors right away. Learning to understand muscle soreness, to distinguish between "good" and "bad" pain and how to deal with it, will, however, hopefully encourage you to keep going and prevent you from contracting serious injury.

It is certainly true that our muscles need to be stressed to the point of unusual fatigue in each set of any resistance exercise in order to stimulate their maximum development. The burning sensation, which often accompanies the last repetitions of a set, performed at the correct level of intensity, is caused by a natural temporary accumulation of lactic acid in the muscle tissue (lactic acid is a waste product from the breakdown of glycogen during anaerobic energy production within the muscle cell). This "lactic acid burn" may be a quite painful sensation, but is harmless and usually only lasts for a few seconds after a set, until new blood is transported into the muscle via the circulatory system, washing away the accumulated lactic acid and other waste products and bringing along new oxygen and nutrients.

Another type of pain, associated with weight training, is the so called DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness ). This kind of discomfort is a natural consequence of training against unusual resistance and generally not felt until one or two days after a hard work-out. According to the most likely theory on this issue, DOMS is caused by micro-tears in the walls of our muscle cells incurred as a result of being stretched out to their maximum during intense exercise. Through these micro tears, an acid called hydroxyproline can leak from the inside of our muscle cells into the areas between the individual fibers of a muscle and eventually irritate nerve endings in the area. Some slight inflammation of the affected and damaged muscle tissue may also occur concurrently. Micro-tears in our muscle cells are a normal result of training with proper intensity and not dangerous at all; in fact, they are a major factor contributing to our muscles' growth. As these micro tears are repaired with suitable proteins within the hours and days following muscular exertion, the muscle cells become stronger especially in the area of the previous leakage/micro-tears, same as a once broken and healed bone becomes strongest in the area where it once had broken. This is but one of the body's natural adaptive responses to systematic overload and makes the muscle tissue continuously more resistant to new damage.

The above mentioned "lactic acid burn" and "Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness" are, however, the only two acceptable forms of "pain" in the context of fitness training and usually indicate that we have managed to train our body with unusual intensity. This is essential for continued progress. Other pain, such as joint- , tendon- or ligament pain, signals danger and constitutes a stern warning to stop performing the respective exercise . The experienced pain may either indicate an injury currently present or an injury about to be incurred, possibly due to performing the exercise with improper exercise technique. Not paying attention to such kind of pain will most likely result in aggravating the present condition and may result in serious injury.

If muscle pain is even felt when warming up for an exercise movement with very light weights, the muscles may not have fully recovered from a previous workout and still need more rest. Muscles, which are still sore from a previous workout are not as flexible as normally and subjecting them to renewed unusual stress in this condition is not only painful, but most certainly does not bring about additional growth. In fact, exercising sore muscles leads to overtraining and increases the risk of muscle tears or even more serious injury. Don't train your muscles while they are still sore, but give them more time to recuperate, facilitating their recovery with appropriate means such as massage, sauna, jacuzzi and suitable nutrition/supplementation.

Christoph Klueppel

Master of Fitness Sciences
Specialist in Performance Nutrition