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Muscle Damage and Soreness: An Overview by Tony Webster - CrossFit Journal

In ExPhysiology, Medical/Injuries, Reference

November 05, 2008

PDF Article

“Lots of us treat muscle soreness like the stereotypical mother-in-law,” writes Tony Webster, PhD, a CrossFitting exercise physiologist from Victoria, B.C . “You’re not really sure if you like her or not, but you know she’ll be back, and you better find a way to deal with her.”

The article explains that you need the pain, swelling, and shakiness of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) because it indicates that your muscles are adapting to your last workout by getting stronger. It discusses why some workouts hurt more than others (and massage and stretches don’t do much to minimize it), and strategies to manage DOMS over the long term.

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20 Comments on “Muscle Damage and Soreness: An Overview”


Alex Europa wrote …

Great article!

The picture on page 1 is priceless!


wrote …

Excellent mix of clear communication of the "science" behind soreness with practical recommendations on how to interpret and deal with it. Very relevant. Thanks much!


wrote …

thanks for the article!

GHD situps are the only thing that keep me sore for more than a few days. Everything else is okay!


wrote …

I thought that the idea that the burning in your muscles during a workout is caused by lactic acid is a myth...?


Jeremy Stecker wrote …

This article is a long time coming. Thanks for the information. I feel like the crossfit koolaid is so invigorating it is very difficult to keep a client from working out, not matter the severity of the DOMS!

It seems the skys the limit when talking about muscle soreness, and I would defiantly appreciate all the information I could get. I'd love more articles on avoiding injury, how to tell if your on the road to injury, and rehabbing injury. Shoulders are the most common that I hear.


replied to comment from David R.

Hey David. As far as I am aware the production of metabolic by-products such as lactic acid IS the major cause of discomfort during a high intensity workout. It is believed these substances stimulate small pain receptors within the working muscle cells. There are other chemical by-products which may also contribute in addition to lactic acid. But lactic acid certainly does NOT cause muscle damage and DOMS! Cheers, tny.


wrote …

Awesome article, and always with CF, very informative. I've read several books on exercise, and never before has this topic been so extensively covered.


Kelley Rakow wrote …

Great article. We've always left room at the end of our WODs for stretching. We've found that it has improved flexibility across the board. As mentioned in the article, however, we haven't seen any decrease in DOMS from stretching. As for anti-inflammatories, we've found that the Zone Diet helps as well as natural anti-inflammatories such as Monavie.


wrote …

Great treatment of the subject matter.

How come exercise during DOMS relieves the pain?


replied to comment from Jonathan Silverman

Hey Jonathan. Well the reason is when you constantly stimulate pain receptors (ie. move the sore muscle lots), after a while they get "used" to it and become less responsive to the same stimulation, therefore they fire off pain messages to the brain less easily. I would imagine that the warming up of the sore muscle has something to do with this pain firing threshold too. Also (and I am speculating here) when we exercise the brain is receiving far more information from the working limbs so it is possible that the pain messages get "drowned out" a bit by all this extra neural activity. Hope this answers your question. tony w.


Joshua Hunnicutt wrote …

I agree with the article whole-heartedly. DOMS is just part of the way of life if you're going to be an athlete, especially a Crossfitter. I was wondering though if I was the only one who had heard of another, newer, along the "inflammation" theory that the DOMS is caused, or perhaps potentiated by the infiltration of the muscle with satellite cells after the exertions that Tony talks about in great detail. I know that it is not quite as researched a topic (as there would have to be multiple muscle biopsies on each subject), but I know that it is a theory out there now. This is the "local inflammatory response" that he talks about. Satellite cells are simply white cells that's purpose is to do the rebuilding. Inflammation, in moderate doses, is a good thing-we need pain and inflammation to know what is going to hurt us, but it also leads to some of the most profound healing responses in the body-responses we need, in this case to heal stronger to that the exertion that was just performed can be performed again with greater ease. DOMS is part of growing as an elite athlete, it always has been-its pain that will lead to gains if properly managed (DON'T OVERTRAIN!)


wrote …

I find that the quickest way to overcome debilitating soreness (ie. after BTB Tabata Squats followed by a whole day of "getting down" at a level one cert) is to do frequent, light bouts of the same movement pattern every few hours for as many days as the pain persists. For example, I find that soreness in my legs is greatly alleviated by a set of five to ten moderately paced air squats, several times throughout the day.

I don't have a very scientific reason for this strategy, but my thought is that in order to "get rid of the bad" you need to pump good blood, oxygen, and nervous energy into the effected area until you feel better.

This article was informative and prescient, seeing as tomorrow's WOD is 4R: Run 400m, 50 Squats. This weekend my legs'll be pretty sore - and now I know why.

And knowing is half the battle.


Jeff Vale wrote …

Great article. Regarding training while sore...for maximum adaptation of a muscle should one wait until it is totally healed (ie. no longer sore at all). I know as CFers we often will train muscles that are still somewhat sore. Is there any evidence that not allowing the muscle fibers to totally heal before working them again reduces the adaptation? If anyone has any info on this I would love the hear it. Thanks.


replied to comment from Jeff Vale


At a recent Barbell Cert, I asked Ripp the same question.

His answer; "If we never worked out when we were sore, than we'd never workout"


wrote …

Joshua: good comments. A small correction, satellite cells are in fact immature muscle cells (not white cells) that usually lie dormant in the muscle until there is some form of damage to the muscle. When there is damage the satellite cells are "activated", they move to the site of damage where they become immature muscle cells which "fill in" the damage and hopefully make us stronger.

Jeff: working out a sore muscle will not REDUCE the adaptation but it will take the muscle LONGER to recover. This is essentially the rationale behind a "crash" cycle of training in a regular periodized training program. The athlete will be pushed hard so that muscle damage and muscle fatigue will accumulate to the point where the athlete performance suffers (that's the idea, it's called "overreaching" by some). The important key is to allow sufficient RECOVERY after this crash cycle (maybe a week of reduced training load or more in some cases) so that the final result is a "super-adapted" muscle and athlete. The important point is not to continue to work out the same sore muscles again and again and again because then you are creeping into "over-training" territory and that definitely isn't good.

I also did my barbell cert with Rip and the same question was asked and answer was given so I can vouch for that one. In an athlete who is training seriously it is inevitable that at some point they will be working on muscles they can still feel from the days before. The key is not to overdo it and manage the fatigue level effectively. As an athlete you know your body best so listen to it and monitor your enthusiasm level to training. If you are feeling chronically sore and unmotivated, time to take a break!


wrote …


As CrossFitters we understand the meaning of real muscle soreness. The kind of soreness that makes you hobble out of bed in the morning and clutch at handrails when walking down stairs.


Wow, I read that and had a chuckle; this has happened to me me on more occasions then I would like to admit. I thought it was age catching up with me (I'm 39), but it is good to see I'm not alone.


wrote …

This maybe a little of base, but the article discuses how static stretches are not beneficial before working out. So, should the Samson Stretch be taken out of the CF warm up?

So glad you wrote this by the way, I am learning so many thing to correct what I thought I knew!


wrote …

Dennis: most of the research that has found a negative effect of static stretching on subsequent explosive performance has used quite prolonged periods of static stretching (several minutes). Also they have usually stretched the exact muscles that are going to be used next. So in reality it's pretty unlikely that holding one Samson stretch for 30s - 1 min each side at the end of the warm up will have any negative effect on your CrossFit workout. If you currently do it as part of your warm up routine, carry on doing it. Just make sure you do it for LONGER in your cool down where the extra time and muscle warmth can help you to improve flexibility in all the muscles involved.

When considering whether or not to keep or eliminate static stretches at the end of one's w/u I kind of like the following line of thinking: if you are chronically tight in certain muscles to the point that (a) it might negatively affect your performance in the workout or (b) it might make you susceptible to muscle pulls or strains in the workout then it may be in your interest to do some controlled static stretches for those muscles. The benefits may outweigh the risks in this case. For example if an athlete has tight hips and adductors and the workout is calling for full snatches or squat cleans that really stress the flexibility of this area then some static squat stretches after the w/u might not be a bad idea. Weigh the risks and potential benefits for your body and your performance level and make your call!


wrote …

Interesting article. I thought I was getting some relief from minor DOMS by running cold water over muscles used during workouts, will probably contunue to do so for the effect of feeling warm when going out into the cold (calgary winters), but every time I read some Crossfit material, another myth seems to be busted. I can attest to the fact that Cindy caused DOMS (level III cert - 30 rounds in 30 mins) even though I did all the reps in 40 secs, I was sore for 3 days. I find browsing the Crossfit site on Sunday AM very relaxing, and sets up my day for working out and trying out what I find out on the site. Ian MAcLeod - Calgary


wrote …

Very good article, thanks for it ! I would like to see some advice on stretching as well. I usually perform OHS or slow air squats, slow good mornings without weigts, I hang from pullup bar etc. but I tried to avoid stretching for the sake of stretching.

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