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Sore Subject

Muscle soreness doesn’t have to be a badge of honor that athletes must always endure. If you train properly and use arnica gel after new or especially intense workouts, you’ll decrease muscle soreness and experience more productive workouts. Why suffer when you don’t have to?

Q: What’s the best way to overcome muscle soreness? I always bust my ass in the gym and as a consequence always feel sore. For example, I wake up some mornings after doing triceps the previous day, and I can barely wet my hair in the shower because I’m so sore. Should I look into products to remove lactic acid?

A: Ever heard this nonsense? “Soreness should be welcomed as a part of training—you should embrace soreness as a sign of a job well done.” That brainless sort of remark is commonly used to explain why you shouldn’t worry about muscle soreness. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially when you’re talking about athletes.

Research suggests that muscular soreness can reduce power output—meaning, for example, that gymnasts who are sore will be unable to perform at their peak. Even if the effect of soreness is primarily psychological, the discomfort may affect the quality of their workouts and even increase their risk of injury.

A popular theory in the fitness community is that soreness is caused by the accumulation of lactic acid in the muscles. That idea is easily disproved: Most muscle soreness is caused by eccentric muscular contractions, which produce less lactate than concentric muscular contractions at identical power outputs. That myth dispelled, let’s look at the facts.

A muscle is composed of separate muscle fibers that are formed in bundles, and those fibers can be further broken down into units called myofibrils. Lifting weights produces hypertrophy in the muscles by increasing the number of myofibrils. Postworkout soreness is actually caused by microtears in the myofibrils of the worked muscle. The faster you can get past soreness, the faster you’ll grow.

Athletes attempt to deal with muscular soreness in many ways. In a 2006 movie about gymnastics, “Stick It,” the main character, played by Missy Peregrym, is shown undergoing an extremely uncomfortable ice bath to aid in recovery. Although ice treatments are popular with gymnasts, when it comes to dealing with delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, those treatments don’t help. In a 1992 study published in the Journal of Athletic Training, the authors reported that not only is the ice treatment ineffective in reducing DOMS but that “the data suggest that ice application may be contraindicated in the treatment of DOMS.”

Over the years I’ve tried a slew of products and protocols to alleviate muscle soreness, ranging from large doses of the amino acid lysine to herbal preparations. So far I’ve found that nothing works better than arnica gels such as one made by Heel, Inc. Such topical products are made in Europe by companies that specialize in homeopathic remedies. I have yet to see any ointment that can alleviate muscle soreness as well as arnica gels, and I’ve tried nearly every ointment out there.

The product made by Heel, called Traumeel or Traumed, depending on the country where it’s sold, was introduced to me by a dentist who worked at a pain-research clinic in British Columbia. Its main active ingredient is arnica, which is derived from Arnica montana, a perennial that belongs to the sunflower family. It’s commonly used to treat bruises and insect bites and is often found in antidandruff preparations. This dentist had told me that it was the best product he’d found for soreness. Being ever skeptical, I decided to test it.

I performed an arm workout using eccentric-only protocols to achieve a high level of DOMS and applied Traumeel to my right arm only, just to see how well it worked. The next day I barely noticed any soreness in my right arm, while my left arm was killing me. I stopped the experiment right away—the conclusions were good enough for me—and put a coat of Traumeel on my left arm. Further study on the product is currently being conducted at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

The healing properties of arnica come from the thymol derivatives concentrated in the roots of the plant. Thymol derivatives have been clinically shown to be effective vasodilators of subcutaneous blood capillaries. Arnica gels and ointments act as anti-inflammatories and accelerate normal healing processes by favoring better transport of blood and fluid accumulations. Many of my clients have reported overcoming a sticking point in their mass gains after using Traumeel postworkout on a weak bodypart.

You’re most likely to find this product in a health-foods store that specializes in homeopathic remedies, but its price varies greatly from store to store. The best way to obtain it is through someone you know who travels to Europe, where it sells for about a third less than in North America. I believe Traumeel is so valuable that we’ve imported a large supply it, and you can now purchase it through our Web site.

Muscle soreness doesn’t have to be a badge of honor that athletes must always endure. If you train properly and use arnica gel after new or especially intense workouts, you’ll decrease muscle soreness and experience more productive workouts. Why suffer when you don’t have to?

Q: My arm strength has not progressed in a while. What do you suggest?

A: Train your lower back. The major lower-back muscle group, called the erector spinae, works with the glutes, hamstrings and other posterior-chain muscles to help extend the trunk. Research from East German sport scientists from four decades ago, largely forgotten now, shows that developing those muscles has the positive side effect of increasing strength throughout the entire body. And I say “forgotten” for good reason. They measured the “irradiation effect” of a host of different strength-training exercises, asking whether training your calves increases your biceps strength and vice versa.

What the experiment showed was that lower-back training had the greatest irradiation effect, so exercises like good mornings or back extensions had the greatest positive transfer to all exercises.  What is the exact physiological mechanism? We aren’t sure. What I do know, from experience, is that it works.

To train all the fiber types found in the erector spinae, it’s best to alternate between two types of routines: one that focuses on activating the high-threshold motor units with heavy loads and one that activates the lower-threshold motor units by prolonging the time under tension.

To show how that can be accomplished, I’d like to present a workout that alternates between two distinct training protocols. Routine A uses a compound exercise performed for low reps, multiple sets and long rest intervals to work the high-threshold fibers. It’s the type of program a powerlifter would use. Routine B makes use of same bodypart supersets but with short rest intervals to work the lower-threshold fibers. It’s the type of workout a bodybuilder would use.

Routine A

Snatch-grip bent-knee deadlifts on podium

5/1/1/0 tempo
2 x 3
2 x 5
2 x 8

Rest: 4 minutes between sets 

The snatch-grip deadlift is a favorite of mine, and I believe it’s one of the most important exercises a sprinter can use because of its effect on developing the muscles of the posterior chain, especially the glutes and hamstrings. Make sure to pause the bar on the floor between reps, and do not use a belt. Also, do six to eight progressively heavier low-rep warmup sets before tackling the first set of heavy triples. If, for example, your best triple on the snatch deadlifts is 275 pounds, your warmup pattern would look like this:

135 x 5, 185 x 3, 205 x 2, 225 x 2, 245 x 1, 265 x 1

The podium, which should be about 10 centimeters in height, allows for a greater range of motion, therefore activating a greater motor-unit pool.

Routine B


A-1: Romanian deadlifts, 3 x 10-12, 4/0/2/0 tempo

A-2: Back extensions, 3 x 12-15, 2/1/0/2 tempo

Rest: 30 seconds between sets and two minutes between supersets

On the Romanian deadlift keep an arch in your lower back throughout the entire range of motion and maintain a 25 degree bend in your knees. If you get to a point in the eccentric lowering where you need to round your back, you’re not performing the exercise properly. If you’re not sure how to do this exercise correctly, enlist the help of a coach certified by Poliquin International Certification.

On back extensions—note: not hyperextensions—if you’re strong enough, perform the exercise with a loaded barbell across your shoulders. Weightlifters have routinely used weights exceeding 200 pounds for reps on this exercise. Because the back extension overloads the erector spinae in the shortened position, it’s very important that you pause in that range for the prescribed count of two seconds. You can substitute reverse hypers for the back extensions.

A word of warning: After the three supersets you’ll probably feel about four inches shorter.

Using the two routines alternately will pack on size not only on your erector spinae but also on all the other major muscles of the posterior chain. You’ll not only look better from the back but also perform better than your competition.

Editor’s note: Charles Poliquin is recognized as one of the world’s most successful strength coaches, having coached Olympic med-alists in 12 different sports, including the U.S. women’s track-and-field team for the 2000 Olympics. He’s spent years researching European journals (he’s fluent in English, French and German) and speaking with other coaches and scientists in his quest to optimize training methods. For more on his books, seminars and methods, visit  IM

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