The Science of Stiffnesses: What They Are and How to Combat them

Most have suffered stiffness at some time in their lives, but there are many myths about their origin and the possible strategies to avoid them.

In this article you will learn why they occur and what measures to take to mitigate them , as well as the answer to the eternal question: Should I train with stiffness? Keep reading to get the answer.

WHAT ARE STIFFNESS?

The scientific term for soreness is  late-onset muscle pain or DMAT (DOMS in English: Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness), and refers to muscle pain after physical activity of a certain intensity, especially if it includes movements that we are not used to. .

They usually appear at 16-24 hours after training, but reach their peak after 48 hours , and can last up to about a week.

WHY DO THEY OCCUR?

For decades it was thought that the laces were produced by the crystallization of lactate in the muscles, but it was a wrong theory. Although there are still uncertainties about its causes, the main trigger will always be muscle damage .

On the other hand, the shoelaces also have a neuronal component . Exercise does not train only the muscles, also the nervous system, and this can be painful (by sensitizing the nerve receptors). In fact the laces can be “contagious” to muscles not exercised but connected to the same segments of the spinal cord .

The eccentric phase seems to be the main cause of the laces , so going down stairs (or hills) produces more laces than climbing them.

Note: The concept of eccentric contraction seems contradictory, but it is not: the muscles can be lengthened and contracted at the same time. For example, the eccentric phase of the squat is the descent, when glutes and quadriceps contract eccentrically (contract while lengthening), to control the descent.

ARE THEY NECESSARY TO PROGRESS?

Some enjoy stiffness by assuming they are a reflection of good training (the weakness coming out of their body) but this is not necessarily true.

As we saw at the time, hypertrophy depends mainly on two factors : mechanical stress and metabolic stress .

The muscle damage could also play a role in hypertrophy, but far behind ( studio , detail ). In addition, the laces are a poor indicator of the real damage  .

In short, you can progress without suffering from stiffness and the fact of suffering them does not reflect a more effective training . Therefore, if it is possible to avoid them, better. Let’s see how.

STRATEGIES TO MITIGATE THE LACES

Unfortunately, there are no magic strategies, but we do have some ways to reduce their appearance, intensity or duration.

1. PHYSICAL ACTIVITY

Light physical activity prior to training seems to help , hence the importance of warming up . Beyond the general warm-up, it is advisable to activate the muscles that we are going to work with similar movements but of less intensity.

If you are going to perform a barbell workout for example , you should start with several series of approximations (maybe three or four) by increasing the load, before performing the work series of each exercise.

However, the subsequent cool-down and the classic stretches seem to have no effect ( study,  study , study , study ). In fact, stretching excessively can raise pain .

The active recovery is also an interesting strategy . Instead of going through the laces lying on the couch the next day, keep moving with light activity. Improving blood flow can help eliminate metabolites associated with pain and carry nutrients that will participate in recovery. The movement also helps reduce the sensitivity of the nervous system .

2. FOODS / SUPPLEMENTS

Two of the best supplements in many other aspects are also the most effective when it comes to fighting stiffness: protein and caffeine .

Personally I would not take anything else, although I summarize the evidence for two amino acids that could help: citrulline and taurine.

PROTEIN

The protein is essential for muscle regeneration, and seems to reduce pain and loss of function associated with shoelaces . It seems to be more beneficial after training , another benefit of the post- workout shake .

CAFFEINE

To the already known benefits of caffeine, such as improving physical performance and helping in the burning of fat , we must add one more: reduce stiffness.

In this study , athletes who consumed caffeine one hour before training felt less muscle pain in general, especially from the second day, where the lats were higher in the group that only took a placebo.

CITRULLINE

Citrulline is a non-essential amino acid that helps raise levels of nitric oxide (more effectively than arginine), and taken before training (in the form of citrulline malate) could help reduce fatigue and soreness  .

The watermelon juice is rich in citrulline, and also seems to have some effect.

3. MASSAGES AND MYOFASCIAL RELEASE

Massages are a good tool in any athlete’s arsenal. Applied a few hours after training reduce the stiffness, but do not expect miracles: the effect is small and short-lived.

It is likely that part of the improvement is psychological, but undoubtedly the massage has a physiological effect , improving blood flow in the area and reducing, for example, creatine kinase .

If you can not afford a massage, use a foam roller , your personal masseuse.

The so-called myofascial release helps to improve general mobility, and for example applied in the twins can increase dorsiflexion of the ankle without compromising performance.

4. HEAT

The heat also seems to reduce soreness, either in the form of sauna , baths or hot packs ,

On the contrary, the application of cold does not help . This fits with the general rule of applying heat after training and leaving the cold for other moments ( detail ).

5. ANTI-INFLAMMATORIES

As we saw some time ago, inflammation is part of the recovery process of a lesion , and is also a signal that regulates muscle gain .

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories are therefore a double-edged sword . Taken after training they seem to reduce the stiffness , but its chronic use will probably interfere in the physical improvements . Less pain, but also less progress and more risk .

For example, these anti-inflammatory drugs can interfere with kidney function, raising the risk of hyponatremia ( study ). In addition, the improvement in reducing the laces seems to vary according to the specific drug, and ibuprofen does not seem to have an effect ( study ). In summary, it’s not worth it.

It is more interesting to experiment with natural anti-inflammatories , such as  gingerand curcumin , and several studies show reduction of muscle pain with fewer side effects ( study , study , study ). That said, it is not advisable to abuse either , since when using these spices in the form of an extract they can have the same side effects as a drug.

SHOULD I TRAIN IF I HAVE STIFFNESS?

In addition to producing pain, soreness can reduce the range of motion and the application of force They also modify the movement patterns being able to move more load towards joints and thus increase the risk of injury.

For these reasons you should train more carefully, but if you always wait until the pain completely disappears your progress will be very slow , and you will only prolong the torment.

In a certain way, the laces are their own cure , since each new training produces less suffering.

But as always, use your head. If the pain is very intense rest one more day , and dedicate the session to another muscle group.

SUMMARY

Stiffness is inevitable in most cases, but you can take some measures to mitigate it:

1.            Warm up before training and apply the foam roller at the end.

2.            Use the sauna after training or take a hot shower. You can also apply hot packs on the muscles worked.

3.            Take caffeine before training and protein after (20-30 grams).

4.            Keep the activity the next day, walking more or doing some mobility session .

5.            Repeat the exercises that produced you stiffness before the pain disappears, but without forcing.

6.            If you are prone to painful soreness, supplement with taurine and citrulline, and try natural anti-inflammatories (ginger and curcumin).

And as a final recommendation, learn to enjoy suffering. Think that  today’s pain will be the strength of tomorrow.

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