Purpose: It is now established that unaccustomed eccentric exercise leads to muscle fiber damage and to delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) in the days after exercise. However, a second bout of eccentric exercise, a week after the first, produces much less damage and soreness. The purpose of this study was to provide evidence from muscle mechanical properties of a proposed mechanism for this training effect in human hamstring muscles.
Methods: The eccentric exercise involved 12 sets of 6 repetition "hamstring lowers," performed on specially designed equipment. Hamstring angle-torque curves were constructed for each of 10 subjects (8 male and 2 female) while they performed maximum voluntary knee extension and flexion movements on an isokinetic dynamometer. Testing sessions were performed over the week before eccentric exercise, immediately post exercise, and daily, up to 8 d post exercise. Subject soreness ratings and leg girth measurements were also made post exercise. Six subjects performed a second bout of eccentric exercise, 8 d after the first, and measurements were continued up to 10 d beyond that.
Results: There was a significant shift in the optimum angle for torque generation (Lo), to longer muscle lengths immediately post exercise (7.7 degrees +/- 2.1 degrees, P < 0.01), indicating an increase in series compliance within some muscle fibers. Subsequent measurements showed increases in leg girth and some muscle soreness, suggesting muscle damage. The shift in Lo persisted, even after other injury parameters had returned to normal, consistent with a training effect. Subjects also showed fewer signs of muscle damage after the second exercise bout.
Conclusion: This is the first study to show a sustained shift in optimum angle of human muscle as a protective strategy against injury from eccentric exercise. Implications of this work for athletes, particularly those prone to hamstring strains are discussed.