Feeling the Burn

Updated: Jun 23, 2019

In the sport of weightlifting we don’t talk to often about “feeling the burn” and for good reason.

The sport itself is a short violent burst of action. Often times taking less than 1 second. In general, we don’t have too much time to feel the “burn”.

But should we ever feel the burn?

What is the Cause?

First, we need to talk about what causes “the burn” so we can better understand what is going on in our bodies.

Lactic acid has long been considered the culprit of the burning feeling in the muscles. Unjustly lactic acid has been demonized as the little bastard that makes you hurt after you train and has been viewed largely negative thing by the health and fitness industry.

However, lactic acid is not to blame! We know that the reason your muscles burn is not from the accumulation of lactic acid, but rather a combination of conditions that leave the body hurting. The exact mechanism is not clear as muscle degradation and repair is an extremely complex process. To date we do not actually know what causes the burning sensation.

We can only speculate where the “burn” actually comes from. The best theories involve the combination of micro tears in the muscle and an accumulation of hydrogen ions which change the blood ph. to a more acidic environment.

However, as of 2016 there is no conclusive data that confirms or denies this theory.

Regardless of the cause of the burn we do know this:

Most people fail to realize the burn is critical in the signaling process for physiological adaptations to occur.

When the blood ph. shifts to more acidic conditions muscle signaling occurs. The body sends signals to the muscle fibers say that you guys are woefully ill prepared to handle what is being

throw at you.

Changes You Desire

The body needs three primary changes to occur to deal with these conditions. ALL three of these changes should interest you, as they will aid in your development as a weightlifter.

First, lets get back to lactic acid. Did you know that lactic acid plays a key role in signaling muscle hypertrophy? Through a series of complex mechanisms, the body is now signaled to increase muscle fiber size (i.e. hypertrophy). Your body is essentially signaled to grow. Your muscle cells immediately start trying to become larger. A larger muscle can then become a stronger muscle.

In addition to signaling for the muscle to get bigger, the body releases more hormones such as epinephrine, nor epinephrine and growth hormone. You may have heard of these as they are all banned performance enhancing drugs.

When the body is flooded with these hormones growth and neurological recruitment increase.

More motor units are recruited to perform more work. Remember the body is becoming more acidic, moving farther away from homeostasis and the reaction is an “all hands on deck” mentality when it comes to muscle function.

Simply put, the body is recruiting more muscle to help do meet the demands we are placing on our body.

A muscle that is trained in a hypertrophic manner can hold more mitochondria.

Mitochondria are little power houses in your muscle cells that mobilize energy for use. They essentially keep that blood ph. neutral and allow the body to function optimally.

The more mitochondria we have in a cell the better. Increasing mitochondrial density is something the body will do when signaled to do so.

In this case with more mitochondria present, more energy can be produced, and more hydrogens can be shuffled around to appropriate and useful places.

So this gets back to my question—should you feel the burn?

Yes! However, it needs to be at appropriate times.

When the athlete is in a block with the goal of adding muscle mass and strength these are appropriate modalities for adding lean body mass. Typically, these blocks are at the front end of the training cycle or in the middle when an athlete needs to de-load from the Olympic lifts. You do not do this type of training as you approach a Peaking Block or Competition Block.

How Much and How Often.

How much and how often is question that has the dreaded answer of it just depends. If you are an athlete that needs to go up a weight class or two, then you need hypertrophic training more often.

If you are weight stable you are going to work in this kind of training into your early blocks and in moderate doses. In this case you may work in this style of training once or twice a week.

My suggestion would be for you to sit down with your coach or athlete and go over the year plan. Talk about the goals and see where hypertrophy training fits in. Sometimes it will require whole blocks of training, other times it will just include accessory work year round. IT ALL JUST DEPENDS!

If you are wanting to add some additional hypertrophy training without adding the beating of a heavy load to the body—I am going to suggest some occlusion training or blood flow restriction training (BFR).

In this methodology you are compressing the musculature and restricting blood flow to an area. You should not have the restriction so tight that your skin turns purple of feels tingly.

The idea behind this is that forcing your muscle to work without adequate amounts of oxygen and nutrient, will drive the signaling pathways to demand the muscle grow in the manners described above.

You can use BFR in a variety of ways. I first came a cross this training a few years ago when many NBA players were using this as a rehab protocol. They had blood pressure cuff type sleeves that were filled with air to compress. At Lift Lab, we are not that fancy and use knee wraps and BFR bands for the same affect.

Here are a few demo videos on how to use BFR on your lower body. You can easily do this with your biceps and triceps as well.



Before you write this kind of training off, remember everything has a time and a place and part of being a good coach and an astute athlete is knowing when to use what!

As always, please email me HERE with any questions or comments!


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