Muscle pain, every strength athlete has a love-hate relationship with it. No matter how annoying it is, after leg-day, you hardly get up the stairs anymore and you have to take acrobatic rhythms to sit on the toilet seat somewhat normally, that muscle ache is really nice! It gives you the feeling that you have been productive and have achieved results. But is that actually the case? Is muscle pain necessary for muscle growth and muscle mass?
The link between muscle damage, muscle pain, and muscle growth
During strength, training cracks develop in the muscle fibers. ‘Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage’, or muscle damage caused by training, causes hypertrophy, muscle growth after recovery. Hypertrophy ensures that the muscle becomes stronger and bigger so that it can handle the next load. The muscle pain or sensitivity that you experience after intensive training is often caused by EIMD. This pain is referred to as ‘Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness’ and occurs approximately 24 to 48 hours after exercise.
When no muscle pain is felt after training, most people conclude that their training has been ‘for nothing’. No muscle pain is no muscle damage and therefore no muscle growth, argue most athletes. What many do not know, however, is that DOMS is not a good standard for determining whether muscle damage has occurred during the training. There are other factors that cause EIMD: Is the maximum power capacity of the muscle sufficiently challenged? Has the full range of motion, or range of motion, of the muscle been used? And is there swelling in the muscles after the effort? All these indicators for muscle damage and therefore muscle growth, however, have little or no connection with the muscle pain that is experienced after just after the training.
The results of a study examining the muscles of athletes after an MRI exercise explains why early muscle pain has nothing to do with muscle growth. First, it appeared that muscle pain was often felt before the swelling, due to muscle damage, EIMD, developed in the muscles. The test subjects also often experienced pain while the muscles were not visibly affected by the effort. This muscle pain could therefore not be a consequence of muscle damage. From this, they concluded that muscle pain is not always a good indication of muscle growth.
Muscle pain without muscle growth
But why am I stumbling out of the gym after my legs training? “, You might wonder now. The development of pain after heavy stress can have various causes. But not all types of muscle pain, however, lead to muscle growth!
Early muscle pain
The muscle pain that occurs six to eight hours after training is called Immediate Muscle Soreness. IMS, or early muscle pain, is caused by lactic acid and fluid in the muscle groups you have trained. With heavy exercise lasting longer than twenty seconds, lactic acid enters the muscle because carbohydrates are not completely burned. The accumulation of this lactic acid can cause pain after the load. However, IMS is not necessarily the result of an effective training that has led to muscle damage and will, therefore, provide muscle growth.
Eating the wrong food, or simply not eating enough, can also cause your muscle pain. After an effective training, in which muscle damage has occurred, the body must be provided with the correct ratio of proteins, carbohydrates, and good fats to build up the damaged muscles. Sufficient rest must also be taken so that the muscles can recover and grow. If you do not nourish damaged muscles during the period until the next training session or do not give them rest, no hypertrophy can occur. Muscles that cannot recover, logically start to protest. Only this type of muscle pain will only lead to discomfort and not to more muscle strength and mass.
In addition, it should not be forgotten that not every pain that occurs during or after exercise is ‘good’ pain. Overloaded, torn or strained muscles give a lot of trouble. This, often sharp, pain must be taken very seriously and certainly not be confused with DOMS. When you, despite the pain, namely by training with an injury, you even reduce the chance of muscle growth in the future. It is, therefore, better to avoid injury and the pain that comes with it. Provide the right technique for performing your exercises and always do a warming up. A warming up ensures a good blood circulation during your work out so that the muscle attachments are relieved.
Muscle growth without muscle pain
If you do the same round every week in the gym, you will notice that these fixed exercises cause less muscle pain. According to researchers, this is due to the ‘Repeated Bout Effect’. The regular training of a certain muscle group provides habituation and delivers less muscle damage, and therefore less muscle pain. This does not mean that there is no hypertrophy anymore, but your training would be even more effective and result in more muscle growth if you break with that routine! The chance of ‘good’ muscle damage is greater if the muscles are not used to a particular technique or exercise. Therefore, ensure sufficient variation in your training schedule and you will achieve more results.
Habituation is not always the cause of the absence of muscle pain. The extent to which muscle pain is experienced differs per person. Some highly trained people experience muscle pain after every workout, while people who exercise at the same level never suffer from it. There is no exact explanation for this fact, but it may or may not feel muscle pain to do with the adjustment of the nerves in the muscle.
Differences per muscle group
In addition, there is not an equal amount of muscle pain in every muscle group. Research shows that many athletes always experience muscle pain after training some muscle groups and are not bothered after burdening other muscle groups. Does this mean that they do not train that muscle group hard enough? On the contrary, the fact is that these people developed as much muscle mass at the places where they never experience muscle pain as in the muscle group where the load is felt the days after. The absence of muscle pain does not have to be an indication for a lack of hypertrophy.
Differences per exercise
Another factor that plays a role in the development of muscle pain is the type of exercise with which the muscle is loaded. Exercises where the muscle is most stressed when the muscle is shortest, for example when the arm is bent during a bicep curl, produces little muscle pain. Exercises where the heaviest load occurs when the muscle is extended, such as when the arm is stretched at a bicep curl, cause more muscle pain.
Sore Today, Strong Tomorrow?
The conclusion is that not all pain that is experienced during or after a training is related to muscle growth or is a good indication for putting on muscle mass. ‘Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness’ is the result of an effective strength training and this type of muscle pain does indeed lead to muscle growth, provided there are enough rest and proper eating. No pain after leg day, however, does not mean that you have not worked up a sweat! The degree of muscle pain differs per person, exercise, muscle group, and habituation to the way of training. Even when muscle pain does not occur, results can be achieved. The statement ‘No Pain, No Gain’ does not always apply!