Believe it or not, this subject makes me chuckle more than any other subject related to weightlifting. But not for any malicious reason. It’s because I get two categories of e-mail about soreness and they go like this:
Pete, you’re a genius, I just did a Static Contraction workout and I’ve never been so sore in my life!
Pete, you’re a genius, I did just a Static Contraction workout and I have no soreness whatsoever!
So it’s funny because both groups are wrong about my special ability to increase or reduce soreness. But I’ll explain the two hypotheses behind these conflicting conclusions.
“Never Been So Sore”
The assumption here is that because Static Contraction training permits lifting the absolute heaviest weight your muscles can lift it utilizes the maximum possible number of muscle fibers. This is correct since it’s the fibers that do the contracting and lifting. Conventional training, which always uses lighter weights, would not use all fibers. So the hypothesis is these muscle fibers are sore later because of the higher intensity of work.
“No Soreness Whatsoever”
The assumption here is that because Static Contraction training is so brief – just 5 seconds per exercise – and only one “rep” per target muscle it greatly reduces the wear and tear on muscles, tendons and ligaments. Conventional training usually stipulates 2 to 4 sets of 8 to 15 reps per target muscle, which represents as much as 60 times more wear and tear every workout. So the hypothesis is there is little or no soreness later because of the reduced work volume.
They both sound plausible because Static Contraction really does involve higher intensity and also really does involve less volume of work. So why do some people suddenly have extra soreness with SCT and other suddenly have no soreness with SCT?
To complicate matters, there are no pain receptors in muscles. In other words a muscle literally cannot feel pain. So what is the soreness we feel? Also, some people never experience workout soreness. Champion bodybuilder, Mike Mentzer, said he never had soreness and he certainly had a reputation for very tough workouts; his moniker was “Heavy Duty”.
Most advice on reducing or avoiding workout soreness is to be well hydrated before and after a workout and to perhaps take a mild anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen. (But remember all drugs offer a trade-off, e.g. less pain and swelling now vs. wear and tear on your liver and kidneys from the drug.)
The key issue is this: science requires measurement. To make strength training a science we need things we can measure. And how would we measure soreness so we can make universal conclusions? On a scale of 1 to 100 was this workout’s soreness a 57 but last workout’s was a 38? Do you have to wait until your soreness is less than 20 before you can perform a new, productive workout? And does a 20 feel exactly the same for you as it does for me? Or is my 20 your 32?
How can we use soreness as a guide to our training when it all seems so subjective? I don’t think we can. So, it boils down to this: soreness is irrelevant. It can’t objectively measure how effective your workout was and it can’t objectively measure when you are sufficiently recovered.
I wish we had a way to quickly and definitively measure when a person had sufficiently recovered from his last workout so that today’s workout would be productive. Right now we use an approximation by spacing workouts farther apart as time goes by. If your exercise weights went up – you waited long enough, if they did not go up – you returned to the gym too soon and need more time off. That’s a classic trial and err method, but it works.
But it would be superior to have a simple pass/fail indicator to tell us whether today is the day we could successfully return to the gym and set personal records. I heard once that old-time strongmen used a test of grip strength to measure their state of recovery. That might work. It would be great if you could walk over to a grip machine, give it a squeeze and see whether today would be a good day to go for a bench press or deadlift record or whether to rest longer. Grip strength can be exactly quantified whereas muscle soreness cannot.
One of these days I’d like to run a study on that.