Dear Sports Medicine Counsel,
I lifted weights for the first time in my life a couple days ago. I did squats, hack squats, deadlifts, straight leg deadlifts, leg press, single leg press, leg extensions, seated leg curls, lying leg curls, standing calf raises, seated calf raises, and finished off with some bike sprints. I was fine yesterday, but today I had trouble walking up stairs and putting on my shirt…why am I so sore? Some dude at the gym mentioned something about lactic acid. Did I break myself?
I can see why this might be concerning. While pain is never a good thing, you are likely suffering from something called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Simply put, DOMS is the pain in your muscles after exercising that can make it difficult to walk, stand up, put your shirt on, or sit on the toilet. Your muscles may even hurt to the touch. Usually this pain starts around 24 hours after exercise, but will improve gradually over a few days. While this pain may be concerning, DOMS is actually quite common, especially after returning to an activity or taking up a new one as you have. Interestingly enough, though, the exact reason why people experience DOMS is unknown, but many ideas do exist.
One theory is that muscle is damaged during physical activity and exercise, such as weight training. When you lift weights there are usually two parts to the movement: the concentric portion and the eccentric portion. The concentric part of the movement is when you are raising the weight, whereas the eccentric part is when you are lowering the weight. During the eccentric portion of the movement, microscopic structures of muscle are damaged. This causes the cells in the muscle to become open to chemicals that cause inflammation, and activates pain receptors around blood vessels. This is why it may feel like your muscles have been bruised— it’s almost the same thing.
I also noticed that you did some bike sprints after you lifted weights. If you were to ask the general public, they would tell you that it caused your DOMS. The theory is that, when you do short, hard periods of exercise, your body uses stored energy. When your body breaks down that energy, we get something called lactate, which can turn in to lactic acid. “Waste” products, such as lactic acid, are thought to build up in the muscles during intense exercise and due to their acidic nature, cause pain. While this theory is accepted by the general public, it actually doesn’t have a lot of evidence to support it, as lactic acid usually disappears within 1 hour of exercise.
Therefore, it is unlikely that lactic acid is causing your muscle pain.
As far as treating your DOMS, the best treatment is likely prevention. Gradually getting into any new activity will give your body time to become stronger and adjust to the demands of the activity; you did quite a lot for your first weight training session! If you already have done the damage, icing the area for a period of 20 minutes a few times per day can temporarily relieve symptoms. Stretching and light activity may also help, although, like icing, may only provide temporary relief. For medication, over the counter anti-inflammatory drugs, such as Advil, may help reduce your pain. Time is also a wonderful thing; just be patient and you will be back in the weight room in no time. However, if you don’t see improvement within a couple of days, you may want to consult your healthcare provider.
Good luck with your future athletic endeavours!
Lakehead Sports Medicine Counsel