What’s the deal with muscle soreness?
I didn’t mean to sound like a bad Jerry Seinfeld stand up, but it’s a thought that’s been on my mind. Members ask about it with some regularity and there is quite a bit of mythology around it.
Unfortunately, most of what we know is speculation.
It was first “common knowledge” that it was the accumulation of lactic acid that caused the pain. But studies show that when soreness is the highest, 24-36 hours later, most of the lactic acid has been flushed away.
There is the idea that you want to chase that muscle soreness to know you had a good workout. But that’s not even true, as most of us have experienced how with more training consistency, we don’t get sore with the same regularity.
Now, the accepted hypothesis is that it’s a combination of muscle fiber damage plus inflammation pressure on the nerves that causes muscle soreness. That would explain partly why some of your soreness goes away as you warm up. Your warm up movement is flushing away that inflammation.
So why do you stop getting sore if you frequently do a particular exercise?
I don’t know. No one KNOWS. My guess:
You know how when you started lifting, things kinda hurt? Not your muscles, but maybe your hands from gripping a pull up bar, or your thumbs from learning the hook grip? Maybe your front rack or back rack when you first started squatting. After some time, it just magically stops bothering you?
It’s a phenomenon called peripheral desensitization. The first time you sense a pain, your nervous system freaks out, because that’s kinda what it does best. But as you keep doing your thing, and nothing bad happens, your brain just sorta filters out those signals. It’s like your nervous system is saying “Fine, you’re not going to stop. I give up.”
My guess is that’s why you stop feeling the soreness when an exercise is repeated. You’re still accumulating the fiber damage and inflammation (you HAVE to in order to progress). But your nerves are like “Ugh this again? I can’t be bothered.”
Can you “roll out” sore muscles?
Yes, but probably not in the way you think is happening.
You are not fixing your soreness, you’re not healing your soreness. Most, if not all, mobility tools can work to alleviate some soreness in a couple of ways.
First, obviously, is that inflammation part. Moving around and squeezing the sore and stiff tissues is going to help flush the inflammation and reperfuse the tissues with more fluid. This helps your joints move more easily and decrease one aspect of soreness pain.
The other dimension is how mobility tools “talk” to your nervous system. While, again, we don’t know EXACTLY how mobility tools help, we know they don’t actually affect your fascia and you can’t mobilize out muscle fiber damage. That shit just gotta heal. But these tools do seem to affect your nervous system and motor units. Tight muscles tend to be tight from over stimulation and mobility tools seem to help those motor unit shill TF out so they don’t keep their stranglehold on the muscles.
If not an indicator of a good workout, what can I learn from the times I get sore?
It usually means that you haven’t worked a specific movement in a while. That is neither good nor bad, but it’s definitely going to happen as you change up your programming one cycle to the next.
It might mean that you advanced a particular movement too fast. Too fast? Muscle soreness can decrease your power output for weeks, so chasing that DOMS isn’t always a good thing in the long run.
It might mean you’ve neglected a certain muscle group. I recently did single leg RDLs and my hammies were LIT the next day. I was shocked, I really thought I was working them with other moves. But apparently not the particular section and not with the focus those RDLs hit them with.
All in all, like with so many things biology, a single sensation or measurement means little to nothing. Don’t chase the soreness, but when you get sore, you can use that information for your next workout.