True to form, when I finally got to the gym on Friday I completely overdid things — piled on the poundage and lifted to failure, just as I had promised myself. By Monday, my upper body — especially my arms — felt like I’d gone 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali in his prime.
(OK, the idea that I would last 15 seconds in the same ring with Ali — even in his current condition — is pretty ridiculous, but you know what I’m saying.)
I know all about the dangers of overtraining, the delusion that if you just push yourself past your limits you’ll get healthier and stronger faster. So, I have nobody to blame but myself. What was curious, though, was how my body’s response was so delayed.
Why was I in so much more pain on Monday than I was on the weekend?
It reminded me of my old basketball-playing days, when my legs would feel crippled not on the day after the game, but two or sometimes three days later. Another few days and I was back to normal — clanging wide-open 15-footers and blowing layups.
The answer to this particular mystery is something called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (whose acronym, DOMS, sounds enough like “dumb” to be instructive), which peaks 48 or 72 hours after your foolishness at the gym.
All that pain comes from the microscopic tearing of your muscle fibers and connective tissue at the cellular level, Kermit Pattison explains in this January/February 2006 story in EL. And this tearing can be exacerbated by eccentric exercise, the lowering of weights in a strength-training regimen.
This makes sense to me, since the pain is most pronounced on the inside of my elbows and my forearms — the muscles most affected by lowering the weights during bicep curls. (Foolishly heeding my inner Schwarzenegger, I added about 10 pounds to what I usually lift on this machine.)
The result was that I couldn’t really straighten my arms without feeling some fairly excruciating pain. It seemed as if the muscles had constricted; the only way I could loosen them up was to (painfully) extend them with my elbows locked and palms facing up and then pull my fingers toward my body.
The good news is that, even as I suffer through DOMS, my poor muscles are growing stronger. It just doesn’t seem like the smartest approach.