Is it supposed to feel like this?? A word about muscle soreness...

Updated: Oct 7, 2021

Hands up who likes to feel just a little bit of an after burn following a workout? When time is short on busy days (are there any other kinds of day??) a lot of us want our exercise hard and fast. We want to tick it off, get it done, and a little soreness the day after somewhere in our mind can help us feel that we’ve done a good job.

So we’ve got to do what works for us and our lives, but it IS important to remember that muscle soreness is not necessarily a sign that a work out was effective. And if every single workout we do is leading to this kind muscle soreness or stiffness, it is possible we could be pushing too hard, and there may be a need to take a closer look at how we’re training and switching a few things up…

Muscle soreness, pain or stiffness after exercise is often called DOMS or Delayed Onset of Muscular Soreness. It is reasonably common, can peak around 48 hours after an intense session (often after having taken a break or participating in a form of exercise new to us) and is usually nothing to be overly concerned about.

There’s been debate over the years about what is going on in our bodies to cause this sensation, but most research agrees now that DOMS is the result of an inflammation caused by microscopic tears or muscle strains in the body’s tissue (not lactic acid build up).

As we work our muscles in new and unfamiliar ways – with load and challenge – our tissue is traumatised with microscopic little tears. It is as the tissue starts to heal later and repair itself that we start to feel sore.

This is why rest and recovery after intense exercise is so critical. It is when our bodies’ natural rest and digest response kicks in that our body adapts, strengthens and benefits from the work we have done.

Just as we all come to and experience exercise differently, we will all experience DOMS differently. Big factors at play include the type of training, intensity, and even genetics.

Working with kettlebells, fortunately or unfortunately, has a bit of a reputation for bringing about intense DOMS, particularly for beginners. There are a couple of reasons for this. We do a lot of big dynamic movements that use a hundreds of muscles at once. These movements are functional, often multi-dimensional, and not just in the sagittal (forward and backward) plane. This can be new to some individuals who haven’t experienced this in other forms of resistance training.

But more significantly we can also experience DOMS commonly after kettlebells as we include movements that require a lot of ‘eccentric contractions.’ This is where the muscles are lengthened under load (rather than shortened under load, which is a concentric contraction).

Think about the downward phase of a kettlebell swing - it requires a controlled deceleration before we send the kettlebell back up again for the next one. The hamstrings do a lot of eccentric work during the kettlebell swing.

The eccentric contraction, when the weight is being lowered, often feels easier to perform thanks to gravity 'helping.' But if control is applied (and we always need control of that kettlebell!) there is a higher tension needed than in a concentric contraction.

These eccentric contractions and exercises result in greater strength gains than concentric contractions because the muscles are always stronger lengthening than they are shortening (though we still need to do both types or work!).

But what is great for adaptation and results, does also mean greater risk of micro-tears in the muscles. That’s why this kind of eccentric work is known to increase DOMS.

An aside – we should never be feeling DOMS during a session (it is not the same as muscle fatigue or ‘burn’ during a workout). Also if you’re still suffering from DOMS after a 48 – 72 hours window, there could be something else at play worth investigating with help.

So all a little bit of a dry read? Potentially. But importantly what to do with all of this info?

Firstly, we can minimise any extreme DOMS (cos we need to get up and down the stairs right??) by balancing our workouts, and ensuring we are not doing too many eccentric heavy movements in one session. Also for beginners and those returning to exercise after a break, we need to build up to new and unfamiliar moves slowly, and ensure we’re not reaching for the heaviest possible weight straight away.

Balancing our weeks to ensure we get a blend of training and adequate rest is also key. Exercising hard and fast is great, but it should only be one portion or aspect of training. We need to work low and slow too, re-balancing the system to allow for recovery. If you’re goal is weight-based and you think you won’t get results this way, please do check this other blog out.

We also need to listen to our bodies each and every day! If we’ve had a heavy session – or it just felt heavy due to lack of sleep, time of the month, or any other reason - and we are still feeling it the next day in our quads for example, rather than hitting it hard again perhaps a walk or some gentle stretches will do.

Finally, if you’ve been training for a while now and no longer feel sore after a workout – it’s okay! Muscle soreness is not a success marker or something to chase, and an absence of it does NOT mean you haven’t done enough.

If we can make our goal a healthy body, capable of undertaking the demands of the life we want to live, we’ve got to be somewhere on the right track 😀

Nicola x

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