We all feel it after a heavy workout. It may flare up in our arms, legs, back or abdomen. It’s an aching, burning sensation that usually appears the next day or two. It’s called delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). As a trainer, one of the most asked questions I get is, “Why do my muscles get so sore?”
In the past, it was thought that lactic acid was responsible for DOMS. But now more research suggests it is actually our own immune system, or more specifically, neutrophils, that are responsible for those sore muscles we all experience.
Neutrophils are white blood cells. When our bodies encounter a virus, bacterium or chemical that stimulates an immune response the neutrophils are the first white blood cells to arrive. These cells can create several kinds of chemicals that can kill the viral or bacterial infections – and they do a very good job at it.
When we perform strenuous exercise, there is localized, minor injury to our muscles – and the healing process is initiated. These muscle fibers do not “appear” normal to the neutrophils and they become over-stimulated. The neutrophils respond in the same way they would to a bacterial or viral infection.
The neutrophils find the site of injury and they begin to adhere and infiltrate the muscle cell. Within three to six hours, they have multiplied in our circulatory system by a million-fold. They release their chemicals into the strained muscle cells and the surrounding area to repair them and at the same time our nerves become more sensitive to pain. This entire process may take 24 – 48 hours.
Stretching pre-, during or post-exercise will not prevent this process from happening. The best option that we have is taking a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, like ibuprofin, or naproxin BEFORE exercise, but there are no guarantees that even that will prevent soreness.
Why don’t I get sore every time I exercise?
If we follow one set of exercise involving muscle-lengthening contractions (such as lowering a bar to the chest during the bench press), a muscle will not be as sore during a second set of the same intensity. For some unknown reason, neutrophils do not become as stimulated as before.
This suggests that one of the best ways to get rid of muscle soreness is to continue to exercise the sore muscles in the same movement as the initial exercise pattern – but not at a higher intensity.
Don’t let the initial pain prevent you from continuing to pursue your fitness goals. Continue exercising! In due time, you will be able to handle a series of random movements of various intensities
continuously, transforming yourself into a well-rounded athlete. And remember, no pain, no gain!
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