How Did I Strain a Muscle Without Noticing It?

Posted on 30 Mar 2012 15:05

You would not believe how common an occurrence this is during strength training. Basically, what happens is a trainee notices that his biceps or some other muscle is sore to touch and with movement, maybe even a bit red or bruised looking. He or she figures they must have pulled a muscle during their last workout…but they never noticed a thing! No pain, nothing. How could this be? And why should it hurt so much now…say a day after the workout?

A while back, in 2009 actually, I wrote a short explanation of something called a nondisruptive muscle strain injury. The purpose of that was to explain how so many trainees and strength training experts misunderstand how muscle injuries occur, how they behave, and how they heal. Yet, I notice that one of the main types of queries that send people to one of the GUS articles on injury is basically: How did I not know I had pulled a muscle? How indeed?

The first thing to cover, is how strains are classified or graded. Depending on who you ask, there are three or four grades or "degrees" of muscle strain. The grading depends simply on the amount of damage done, from a percentage standpoint. And when we say percentage, we mean in terms of the muscle's diameter, and therefore the number of fibers involved. Basically, this means we are considering how deep the strain is. Think about it in simple terms. Picture a muscle with a more or less round belly (although strains don't tend to occur there). Imagine if, underneath the fascia, you took a knife and sliced through just a few muscle fibers, only ten percent or less of them. That would be minor injury to the muscle. Now imagine the most severe injury you could slice through all the fibers…the entire muscle. That would be a Grade III or IV, depending on the grading system you prescribe to. So you see that it is how deep the "cut" is that counts.

Most Strength Training Strains are Minor First-Degree

Most strain injuries during strength training are first-degree strains. This means they involve only ten percent or less of the fibers. These minor strains do not really affect your strength much nor your range of motion. You can sustain such a strain in the gym without hardly noticing you've done it.

Likewise, not all muscle strain is acute. Some of it is due to repetitive actions that cause cumulative "microtrauma." Most of the time, you probably think of stuff like carpal tunnel syndrome, etc., but overusing one muscle in the gym, like because you have a biceps obsession, for instance, without adequate recovery, could cause this cumulative damage to the muscle tissue, not to mention the joint tissues.

Either a minor acute strain or this repetitive trauma can happen right under your nose, so to speak, without you ever noticing it. When we do notice these things, it's when they go from minor and asymptomatic (at least so you'd notice) to major and symptomatic.

If you've sustained this minor damage to a muscle and then later go in to lift, the muscle could be further damaged and become a more serious strain. So a Grade I strain can become a Grade II strain because the tissue is further damaged through use. But if that happened, you'd have a good chance of noticing it when it occurred. Wouldn't you?

You'd be surprised. Depending on the degree of damage, you might not feel it. Just like you can overuse muscle without feeling pain, you can use slightly damaged muscles without feeling pain. Continued muscular contractions have a slight analgesic effect. You may have noticed this before. For instance, if you have a bit of DOMS in your thighs and do some light barbell squats with moderate to high volume…you'll notice the soreness going away. This same phenomenon explains how you can sustain a strain, or make a minor strain a bit worse, without knowing it. Until several hours later or the next day when you notice tenderness, pain, and/or a reduction in the range of motion.

The only thing you can do about this type of thing is to avoid it, if possible. This means training smart. Add weight gradually. Add volume gradually. Increase frequency gradually. Don't look for DOMS as a training goal, as the continued seeking of soreness (like some people will tell you is necessary) can lead to cumulative trauma that becomes a strain when the muscle is tensioned enough. Remember, no injury is inevitable. Injuries can sometimes be very difficult to avoid. Despite our best efforts, we will all sustain a strain or other injury at some point. But it is never inevitable, as all injuries CAN be avoided, even if we don't always succeed in doing so.

Unnoticed injuries will be relatively minor ones. Once you do notice the injury, take proper steps to treat it. Major injuries in the gym you WILL notice, of course. And this actually brings us to another rule of thumb for muscle strains. The fact that you can use the strained muscle without a lot of pain, indeed, with no pain, points to a minor injury. Also, when there is pain, a minor injury will not tend to be painful when you aren't using it, but only with movement or palpation. This kind of injury could easily be mistaken for an overuse injury, and, indeed, the distinctions between an acute and chronic injury can be vague. See the GUS category overuse injuries for more. Be aware, when reading about both acute and chronic overuse injuries that explanations often suffer from the nominal fallacy, which assumes that naming the injuries, giving them a definition, provides an explanation.

This page created 30 Mar 2012 15:05
Last updated 21 Mar 2018 03:23

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