Many lifters gauge the quality of a workout by how sore they feel following a lifting bout. But is this a valid approach? Here’s the lowdown.

Delayed onset muscle soreness (often referred to as (DOMS) is brought about by damage to muscle tissue. It is primarily caused by eccentric exercise, where muscles are lengthened under extreme tension. During eccentric activity, the contractile elements (actin and myosin) of working muscles exert a “braking” action in order to resist the forces of gravity. This produces small microtears in both the contractile elements and surface membrane (sarcolemma) of the associated muscle fibers. These microtears allow calcium to escape from the muscles, disrupting their intracellular balance and causing further injury to the fibers. Metabolic waste is produced, which interacts with the free nerve endings surrounding the damaged fibers, resulting in localized pain and stiffness. White blood cells (such as neutrophils and macrophages) then migrate to the site of the injury, generating free radicals that further exacerbate the sensation of pain. Depending on the extent of muscle damage, soreness can persist for 48 hours or more.

Soreness & and Muscle Development

Is the soreness beneficial for muscle development? In a sense, yes, – but only from an indirect standpointindirectly. Research suggests that muscle damage does in fact play a role in muscle development. It causes the disruption of a fiber’s ultrastructure, which is believed to activate muscle satellite cells. Satellite cells are akin to muscle stem cells, which, when stimulated, fuse to the associated muscle fiber and donate nuclei that increase muscle protein synthesis. The activation of satellite cells also results in the expression of muscle growth factors that aid in the repair and regeneration of muscle tissue, further enhancing development. Since soreness is indicative of muscle damage, it generally is a sign that you’ve set the stage for muscle growth.

That said, soreness is by no means a prerequisite for muscle development. Understand that the human body is highly adaptive. Your muscles, connective tissue and immune system become increasingly efficient in dealing with fiber-related damage associated with intense training. Various physiologic and structural adaptations take place that gradually reduce the sensation of pain. Generally speaking, the more that you train at high levels of intensity, the greater your resistance to muscle soreness – , even though you’ve invariably inflicted damage to fibers. This is why some of the world’s physique athletes and strongmen never get sore following a workout, yet have impressive muscularity.

It’s also important to point out that too much soreness is not a good thing. When soreness is debilitating, it indicates you’ve stressed your muscles beyond their capacity for efficient repair. This not only impedes protein synthesis, but also impairs your ability to train with sufficient intensity of effort.

Bottom line: It’s probably a good sign if you’re getting sore, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing if you’re not. Focus on progressively overloading your muscles and consistently challenging your body beyond its present capacity. Provided these criteria are met, there’s no need to worry about whether or not you feel sore after a workout.

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