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MASTER CLASS: How to avoid delayed onset muscle soreness

by Matt Parrott | August 3, 2020 at 1:57 a.m.
Eric Godwin demonstrates the Swing Squat on a trail near Little Rock Athletic Club for Matt Parrott's Master Class. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Celia Storey)

Delayed onset muscle soreness is one of the unfortunate side effects of strength training that often derails exercise programs before they really begin. However, there are ways to minimize this little workout peccadillo.

This week, I'll share some of those methods as well as a move that could introduce a little soreness — in a good way.

If I think back to my first few strength-training workouts, I recall a few highlights. First, I remember how little control I had over the barbells and dumbbells. My arms and legs twitched and quivered throughout the workout, and I was amazed at how difficult the movements were.

I also have a vivid memory of the soreness that I felt two days later. The extreme discomfort appeared to affect me to a greater degree than my more experienced workout counterparts, so I assumed it was an issue that was only associated with beginners. Boy, was I wrong!

The truth is that delayed onset muscle soreness can happen to anyone — regardless of fitness level.

Although there's debate over the root cause of the soreness, most experts agree that muscle fiber microtrauma is a major contributor. In my experience, high levels of delayed onset muscle soreness can be de-motivating for those beginning a strength training program. People associate the discomfort with the workout and thus want to avoid experiencing the discomfort in the future. It is a very natural reaction to a negative stimulus.

How can we reduce the degree of soreness experienced?

First, we know that eccentric contractions (lengthening of the muscle under resistance) create more severe soreness than do concentric (shortening) contractions. For this reason, I recommend that less experienced exercisers limit eccentric training.

One example of an eccentric movement that is likely to cause significant soreness is a slow squat under heavy resistance. The lowering phase of this exercise causes the gluteal group and quadriceps to lengthen at a very slow rate while bearing a heavy load. This type of exercise is a recipe for developing significant soreness, unless the exerciser is experienced.

At the same time, muscle soreness comes with the territory. It is a natural part of challenging the body to work against resistance and therefore is unavoidable from time to time.

For treating it, there is some evidence that hot baths, massage, and low-intensity activity (cycling, swimming, etc.) can help.

This week's exercise is the kind of activity that can cause soreness, as the explosive nature of the movement could generate more significant microtraumas within the lower body. So, my advice is to use light resistance and limit the range of motion for the first couple of workouts. The Swing Squat is great for developing lower body strength, endurance and balance.

1. Grasp the handle of a kettlebell with both hands and stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Slightly bend the knees and the hips.

2. Bend forward from the hips and allow the kettlebell to drop a little.

3. Straighten the back/hips quickly to raise the kettlebell. As this happens, simultaneously squat down so that you raise the kettlebell to almost head height while squatting. This requires good timing, so that you do not squat too early or too late to take advantage of the kettlebell's momentum.

4. Once you get the hang of it, go for 12 repetitions, and repeat for 2 sets.

The Swing Squat will challenge people of all fitness levels, but the level of difficulty can be easily adjusted with lighter or heavier kettlebell selection. Enjoy!

Matt Parrott has a doctorate in education (sport studies) and a master's in kinesiology and is certified by the American College of Sports Medicine.

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