Sore muscles are part and parcel of any resistance-based workout. In fact, a little bit of soreness can be a good indicator that you gave your best effort. Of course, excessive amounts of soreness are another story. That kind of thing usually means that you made a mistake or went too far. In this article, we will attempt to educate you as to the causes of muscle soreness, how long it will last, and how to deal with this common and inevitable problem.
What Causes Muscle Soreness?
As it happens, science has not fully explained this phenomenon. The only thing we can say for sure is that muscle soreness is the result of micro-injury to the muscles. When your muscles are pushed hard, they develop microscopic tears that cause a little bit of pain.
To some degree, this is beneficial because it is a part of the muscle-building process. Basically, you injure the muscle slightly so that the immune system will respond by building it larger. Obviously, if you tear those muscles past the point where your immune system can quickly heal them, you will experience prolonged muscle soreness.
Other factors that may cause or affect muscle soreness include:
- Stretching (or lack thereof)
- Muscle spasms
- Connective tissue damage
- Enzyme efflux
One factor that we can safely rule out is lactic acid. For a long time, there was a popular theory that lactic acid could build up in the muscles and cause soreness. This idea was based on the increased levels of lactate that have been observed during exercise. However, this theory has been disproven in recent years.
How Long Does Muscle Soreness Last?
There are two kinds of muscle soreness: acute and delayed. Acute soreness happens while you are working out, while delayed muscle soreness sets in about 24 hours after the exercise session. The main difference between the two is the fact that acute soreness tends to go away after an hour or two. Delayed-onset muscle soreness(sometimes abbreviated as DOMS) can last as long as a week.
Acute muscle soreness isn’t really a problem and should be expected, especially during weight training. Acute muscle soreness is actually a good thing because it gives you an easy way to know when you have hit your limit. Delayed-onset muscle soreness of the type described above is not normal, and it probably means that you went too far.
Bear in mind that these are approximate times. The actual time frame that you experience will depend on how severely you have strained yourself, and on your activity level. Your DOMS may not last an entire week, but you may need to see a doctor if it lasts longer than that.
What Can I Do To Prevent This Problem?
Although some degree of muscle soreness is impossible to avoid, you can definitely do some things to lessen the degree and the duration of the pain. Here is a quick list:
- Stretching before and after a workout
- Getting a good dose of branched-chain amino acids (BCAA’s)
- Knowing your limits
- Avoiding or lessening the use of stimulants
- Massage therapy
Stretching is the most obvious step. If you don’t know how to stretch properly, here is a basic routine for beginners. If you look for more examples of stretching routines like this one, you will see that no two are alike. Look through some examples and find the stretches that you like best. The only rule is to make sure that you are hitting all the major muscle groups.
There is a decent amount of scientific evidence to show that certain types of amino acids will aid recovery and reduce soreness/muscle fatigue. You probably know that amino acids are the building blocks of all muscle, and are thus required for muscle growth. There are only three branched-chain amino acids: Leucine, Valine, and Isoleucine.
Knowing your limits allows you to prevent many injuries with common sense. Just remember that there is a fine line between building up the body and tearing it down. Once you cross that line, you are actually working against yourself.
Many people like to use caffeine as a pre-workout stimulant, and this is usually no problem. However, there are limits that need to be observed. When your body is in a stimulated state, it does not feel pain to the same degree that it normally would. Also, when your mind is in an excited state, it can be harder to make yourself stop.
Massage therapy might also be an option if you can afford to have it done. Some fitness clubs offer massages as a service to their members, so this option isn’t only for those rich enough to hire a personal masseuse. Self-massage is also possible, and has proven to be effective in reducing muscle soreness.
A Word About Rhabdomyolysis
Rhabdomyolosis is probably the most serious side effect that can occur if you push your muscles too far. As the muscles are continually damaged, their fibers can eventually die. After becoming a mass of dead cells, the muscles will naturally begin to break down. This is a big problem because the body has a hard time disposing of this dead muscle mass. It can damage the kidneys as it is digested, and can even cause kidney failure leading to death. See a doctor and get checked for this condition if you experience muscle soreness lasting longer than a week.
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to the question of how long muscle soreness will last. As with many issues concerning human biology, there will be a lot of individual variation. The only way to get a definitive answer to this question is to learn your own body and what it can handle. Before you can reach for the sky, you must first know where the ground is.
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