Marcia Brenner Challenges Assumptions about Going for the Burn
I confess: I like to be sore after a workout. I’m not talking about the gentle stiffness and warmth you feel bending to remove your gym shoes.
I’m talking about DOMS—Delayed Onset Muscle Syndrome. DOMS is like that serial killer that hides in the backseat the whole drive away from the last attack, biding his time while you frantically check the rearview to make certain you are safe. DOMS generally starts up 8-12 hours after a workout, might intensify over 24 hours, and lasts up to 72 hours.
I first started getting DOMS when I started studying Pilates seven years ago. If you’ve had it, you remember it. If you had it severely, you likely laid off the workouts for a few days while you figured out how to pick up your leg with your arms to mount a stair, or asked old ladies to open your can of diet coke because you couldn’t grip anything.
I don’t get DOMS all that often anymore—about once or twice a month—and certainly not at the intensity I have in the past. As a pilates instructor, most of my workouts now are about maintaining, not building, muscle. Lucky for me, maintaining muscle doesn’t require the same effort as building, but I think a lot about soreness as a measure of fitness. I know many life-long yoga and pilates practitioners who claim they just don’t get sore anymore, and clearly they are incredibly fit. Yet soreness is something so many people want after a workout—my clients included. And it’s not always something we get. So the question is, if you aren’t sore, does that mean you haven’t worked hard enough? And if you are sore, is it an indicator that you’ve had an effective workout?
I posed these questions to Dr. G. Klaud Miller , a board-certified orthopedic surgeon with almost 30 years experience, and the medical director of Windy City Orthopedics and Sports Medicineon the north side of Chicago. “Do you have to get sore in order to have had a good workout?”
“Oh, absolutely not,” he said. So why do so many people “go for the burn”?
Miller puts it this way: “It’s a badge of honor. I’m sore. I worked out. What they don’t understand is that, in a severe case, that’s actually hindering your progress because you can’t work out effectively for two or three days…You don’t have to work out every day, that’s a fallacy, unless you’re an Olympic athlete/elite performer. For the average person, every other day is just fine. If you’re working so hard that you can’t move for two or three days, you aren’t doing yourself any favors.”
Oh god, there’s that moderation thing again. Not a particularly American mentality, moderation, and something I am consistently striving to find with my own workouts and diet. I know my own body pretty well at this point, and have a good idea what the wrong kind of intensity is, but how does the average person know how hard is too hard? And where does muscle soreness come in to the equation?
Over the years, lactic acid has gotten a bad rap. It’s generally been painted as something to avoid, a “waste product” of overtaxed muscles, it was thought. But it turns out lactic acid is actually fuel produced by your muscles from glucose, generally when your muscle fibers have depleted stored oxygen; your brain thinks you are gonna need something extra to keep going, like an internal energy drink.
Contrary to myth, lactic acid doesn’t “build up” in your muscles and cause soreness later—in fact, it’s usually gone from your muscles within an hour of exercise. Athletes who train regularly become more efficient at metabolizing lactic acid, and therefore notice diminished during-exercise soreness or “burn,” which is theorized to come from the lactate and other metabolites released, although the science is still unclear on which metabolites are involved.
Miller explains that the most current sports medicine science suggests the soreness linked to both lactic acid and DOMS comes from the connective tissue between muscle fibers, and the metabolites and lactate released are more a symptom than a cause; the intensity of the soreness, he explains, likely just different manifestations of the same thing.
To understand the relationship between muscle fibers and connective tissue, imagine a pack of Twizzlers. Muscle fibers lie next to each other and have a grain, moving in the same direction from origin point to insertion point like the whips in a pack of licorice. They do not, however, connect to each other with the same sticky quality you note when you peel one piece of licorice away from the others. Miller compares the connective tissue between the muscle fibers to those plastic ratchet ties often found binding new electrical cords into neat bundles. Those plastic ratchets wind and weave around the muscle fibers to keep them together, and don’t have the same kind of give and elasticity as muscle, so that under certain circumstances—such as when a muscle is getting a new or exceptionally hard workout—the connective tissue “ratchets” apart before the muscle can stretch.
But here’s the real kicker: that intense workout that left you sore for days? Well, that soreness may mean the connective tissue between and around the muscles got a hell of a workout, but as for the muscle fibers themselves? Maybe. Maybe not.
What we do know about DOMS is that it tends to happen during exercise that involves eccentric muscle contractions.
An eccentric contraction is one in which the muscle fibers are both stretched (lengthening), and weight bearing. A concentric contraction is one where the muscles are shortened while being flexed: a classic sit-up where your knees are bent, feet on the floor, is a good example of a concentric contraction of the rectus abdominis (your “six pack”).
To make this an eccentric exercise, simply left your legs off the floor, straighten them out at a diagonal, and hold them there while you curl up. Now, you’ve forced that abdominal muscle to stretch like a fitted sheet, and to also contract, or “flex” to help you sit up. Welcome to the warm up exercise pilates calls 100’s (oh, and you pump your arms 100 times while doing it.) Pilates is full of eccentric contractions, which explains why so many practitioners get DOMS two days after a tough mat class.
In order to build muscle—and all that science is clear on—you have to make “micro-tears” in the muscle tissue. What is also clear is that you can build muscle tissue without ever having experienced soreness, just as you can apparently get sore without actually having caused micro-tears in the muscle fibers. Well, great. Then how the heck do you know if you’re getting fitter? If your workouts are effective? I asked Miller this question.
“I’ll use age 30, if you will, as a kind of a breaking point,” he said. “Unless you’re a competitive body builder, nobody over thirty should be trying to push huge weights. You want aerobic capacity, you want endurance, and you want tone; you don’t want bulk. So you’re better off working moderately. And this is when we get into religious philosophies about reps in weight lifting, and set numbers, and the burn, and ‘get pumped’, and ‘the last rep should be the last one you can do’, and ‘you should be totally wiped out so you can’t even do another rep’, and ‘you only want to work some muscles one day, and other muscles another day’, etc.—and that’s all basically weight lifting mythology. This idea that you fatigue the muscle completely, destroy it, then give it 48 hours to rest, then destroy it again—this is all philosophy for a pro body builder, not the average person.”
But is the average person working out every other day? Perhaps not. And so those two spin classes a week, or that one yoga or pilates class a week is where they expect to make up for the three off days by pushing themselves. And perhaps that’s where the soreness pleasure comes in. If you’re working out twice a week, and you are sore for two, it likely helps you feel better about that 12-hour stint in the office each of the next three days.
And can you effectively build muscle with that balls-to-the-wall twice a week, approach? Is it effective as a moderate, every-other-day workout?
“It’s not AS effective,” Miller contends. “All the studies have shown that when you get DOMS, you have muscle weakness which lasts for a period of days while the muscle recovers, so again, if you are someone who competes for a living [and part of your sport means pushing yourself to an edge while in competition] then this might make sense. For an average person to adopt this extreme pattern, it’s ineffective.”
More importantly, he adds, it can lead to injury.
“I had a [patient] who wanted to run marathons; every time he got up to 15 miles, he’d get a stress fracture. We went through this four times and I finally said to him, ‘Quit running marathons; stay to half marathons. You can run, but every time you try to get to marathon distance you’re getting injured. Your body just can’t handle that much stress’.
Miller reiterates that it does seem that some people are genetically built for certain sports, like running, and some aren’t. Marketing and media would have us all believe we can have six-pack abs if we Just Do It, but Miller says that just isn’t the case.
“I don’t care how much you starve, you aren’t going to look like the models. They are genetically blessed. I don’t care how much a guy works out; he’s not gonna look like Arnold. Even if he takes steroids; it ain’t gonna happen. Arnold was a genetic freak… beyond that, most people don’t have 4-6 hours of training time a day…People have lives.”
I’ve long ago given up on the idea that my six-pack is gonna show. It’s enough for me to know it’s there. But I still wonder about why I enjoy soreness. Science might say it’s the chemical link between soreness and endorphins; it’s possible that the brain reads lingering soreness as injury and the release of pleasurable chemicals create a positive feedback loop that keeps me wanting more. Of course, I’d go back for more anyway, because I love doing pilates, even without the soreness. And maybe that is the most important part of determining a good workout—how we feel while we’re doing it. The rewards that come later like looser pants, lowered stress and depression levels, healthier hearts and sharper minds—they’re all great, but not instantly gratifying, and it takes practice learning the patience that comes with reshaping your body.
And, as Miller adds, “A little achy sore is fine, but it shouldn’t be so you’re hobbling down the hall. I always tell people, it’s supposed to be fun, and if it ain’t fun, you shouldn’t be doing it.”
Ultimately, maybe that’s our best measure of a great workout.