Working out is one of my favorite things to do. When I train, my muscles start to burn after a few sets. This is normal. It’s caused by lactic acid buildup.
As my body uses energy, lactic acid develops in my muscles. If it can’t be removed, the burn can be intense. This causes me to end my set.
Yet, I want to get a few more reps. I needed to find ways to get rid of lactic acid in the muscles. By doing that, I can get more out of my workout.
When we exercise at a high intensity, our levels of oxygen decrease. As training intensity increases, our muscles need more energy. This leads to a buildup of lactic acid.
What is lactic acid?
It’s a compound that is manufactured in our body. It’s produced in response to glucose breakdown and oxidation. This happens because glucose is broken down for muscular energy.
The mitochondria breaks down stored carbohydrates to be used for energy. As lactate builds up, it gets converted into energy by the mitochondria.
This causes a buildup that produces hydrogen ions. That’s what causes the “burning” sensation we feel in our working muscles. As hydrogen ion levels increase, our muscles have a hard time contracting. Once the burning sensation reaches a certain level, your set effectively ends. This is because you can no longer contract your muscles.
This is called the “lactate threshold”. We can learn how to train beyond our lactate threshold. The following tips can delay the time it takes for the burn to kick in. By delaying the burn, we can work out harder and longer.
We know that lactic acid builds up in our muscles. As this happens, we know it causes a burning sensation. Usually, we feel the burn near the end of a set. The reason is lactic acid is produced faster than our muscles can handle it. This is especially true during longer, more intense workouts. In addition, it’s usually closer to the middle and end of our workout.
The symptoms you will experience include:
- Burning Sensation In The Muscles – The burn can get worse as we push through our set. This is especially true if we are performing a high-intensity set.
- Difficulty Contracting Your Muscles – The burn means muscle contraction will become more difficult. Usually, this means the set will need to come to an end.
- Muscular Ache – Along with the burn, your muscles ache. This makes continuing the set difficult.
- Rapid Breathing – Your breathing will increase due to muscular pain. Your breathing will become more rapid due to the difficulty you will have continuing.
- Stomach Discomfort – Some individuals experience nausea and other stomach discomforts. This relates to your level of intensity.
There are two immediate ways we can reduce lactic acid buildup.
First, rest longer between sets. If you’re training hard and not resting long enough, lactic acid will continue to build. Some bodybuilders and athletes rest up to 3 minutes. That may not work for everybody. Still, resting 1 minute to 1/12 minutes is a good idea. Use this time to drink your water or sports drink. You can also stretch the muscles you’re working.
Second, reduce your training intensity. This can mean you end your set early. What if training intensity is part of your workout? For example, you may use intensity techniques to get more out of your set. You can follow an intense set with a lighter, easier set. You’ll want to keep your reps limited. This is because high reps will lead to a buildup of lactic acid.
Here’s an example. Instead of “repping out” on a light set, perform 6-8 reps. By doing this, you’re stopping before lactic acid has a chance to build up. This is called a recovery set and can be used throughout your workout.
In addition, there are other ways to help prevent lactic acid buildup.
Generally speaking, staying hydrated is important. It’s even more important when you work out. Lactic acid is water-soluble. Drinking plenty of water can help prevent the build up of lactic acid. Remember do not wait until you feel thirsty to drink. By that time, you’re already in a dehydrated state. In this state, your performance will suffer.
The American Council on Exercise suggests drinking 16 to 20 ounces of water two to three hours before your workout. What about during your workout? Drink an additional 7 to 10 ounces of water every 20 to 30 minutes of exercise. You can also use a sports drink.
Be sure to warm up completely before you begin your working sets. Your warmups should include stretching. Warming up will help increase circulation. It also helps deliver more oxygen to your muscles. Oxygen can help your body get rid of lactic acid buildup in the muscles.
It’s important to establish a regular workout schedule. In addition, planned recovery days allow the body to rest and repair itself. It’s also important to avoid adding too many sets to your program. Many exercisers think “more is better” and begin to add to their workout. Excessive volume or frequency can cause severe soreness. If you choose to add volume, add gradually.
You should stretch as part of your warm up. Make sure you stretch the muscles you plan to exercise. Also, include stretches for the entire body.
Once your workout is over, you should stretch again. This is because stretching increases circulation, and brings oxygen to your muscles. It’s a good idea to stretch as soon as you’re done with your last set.
There’s a good reason for this.
Stretching after your workout helps provide immediate relief to your muscles. Lactic acid can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to dissipate. The stretching and cooling down period help eliminate lactic acid. It also helps your body recover.
There’s another aspect of recovery that can help reduce lactic acid buildup. Using a foam roller on your muscles will relax tight muscles. This also decreases lactic acid buildup. That’s because it improves circulation. You can use a foam roller as part of your warm up. Also, you can use it immediately after your workout. Finally, you can use a foam roller in between workouts to help recovery.
Foam rollers are effective. Yet, other types of massage are also helpful. You can use a massage gun, or a percussion massager. There are a number of effective hand-held units available. Or, if you prefer, a massage therapist can provide good relief. A massage therapist is trained in the best types of massage for muscle recovery.
It’s a good idea to work on your breathing technique. Studies have shown that athletes who practiced breathing exercises were able to increase athletic performance. Lactic acid levels did not increase. (1)
Here’s an easy breathing technique to try. First, inhale slowly through your nose. Then, exhale through your mouth. You can hold your breath for a few seconds after each inhale. Do this only if it feels comfortable.
Practicing breathing can help deliver more oxygen to your muscles. This in turn slows down the lactic acid buildup.
It’s true that the buildup of lactic acid is normal during your workouts. However, some people could be at risk for a condition called lactic acidosis. Someone with liver problems is unable to effectively break down lactic acid buildup in the bloodstream.
Symptoms of this condition go beyond the ones listed for normal lactic acid buildup in the muscles. Consult your doctor or health practitioner if you experience at least two of the following symptoms:
- General Muscle Weakness
- Yellowing Around The Eyes Or On Your Skin
- Shallow Breathing
- Elevated Heartbeat
- Muscle Cramps
- Abdominal Pain And Gastric Discomfort
- Sluggish Appetite
- Nausea, Diarrhea, Or Vomiting
As noted, lactic acid buildup occurs as you work out, especially if you’re training intensely. You can eliminate it by using the tips presented in this article. However, too much lactic acid buildup causes lactic acidosis. This is a condition you can’t eliminate on your own.
What else can you do to help offset lactic acid buildup? Adding certain foods to your diet can help. Eating foods with a high water content pre or post-workout is a good idea. These foods include watermelon, apples, cucumbers, cantaloupe, lettuce, and grapes. These types of food contain 80-90% water.
You can also do the following:
Magnesium is one of the most important essential minerals. It’s involved in energy production and muscle contraction. (2) Good food sources of magnesium include dark leafy greens. These include spinach, collard greens, and swiss chard. Beans are also a good source. These include green beans, navy beans, lima beans, and kidney beans. In addition, tofu contains high levels of magnesium. Finally, you can always use a good multivitamin/mineral supplement.
Magnesium is one of the electrolytes. What about other electrolyte minerals? Calcium is important for proper muscle function. If you are low in calcium, it will cause leg cramps. Maintaining enough electrolytes is critical for proper hydration.
As suggested, drinking plenty of water is important. You can also drink a sports drink, or take a specialized electrolyte powdered mix. All of these things keep you hydrated. As we’ve seen, good hydration helps prevent an excess of lactic acid buildup.
The B Complex vitamins perform a number of functions in the body. One of things they do is help transport glucose to be used as energy. (3) Good food sources include leafy greens, peas, legumes, and beans.
Also, lean protein sources such as eggs, fish, eggs, poultry, and low fat dairy products are good sources. In addition, most multivitamin formulas have a good content of B vitamins. You can also buy a separate B-Complex. Thus may be important, the B vitamins as well as vitamin C are water soluble. This means you should replace your B and C vitamins daily.
Healthy fats are essential for the breakdown glucose to be used for energy. Healthy fats include almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds. Non-nut sources include fish, especially salmon and tuna.
We’ve already talked about supplementing magnesium. We noted that the same multivitamin/mineral formula will also provide B-Complex vitamins. As suggested both of these nutrients are available as stand-alone products. Are there any other supplements we can use?
Yes, there is. Beta-alanine. What is beta-alanine?
Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid. It combines with the amino acid histidine to form carnosine. (4) What this does is increase levels of carnosine in the body. Why is this important? One of the functions of carnosine is to lower lactic acid buildup. By doing this, carnosine helps reduce workout fatigue. This means you can keep your set going a little longer. (5)
If you combine this with our other tips, you can go a long way to better workouts. How do you get beta-alanine? It’s available in most pre-workouts or as a stand-alone product. The clinical dose of beta alanine is 3.2 grams.
There’s one more thing beta-alanine does. It usually causes a short-term, harmless tingling effect. You can help eliminate this effect by drinking water.
Some pre-workouts under dose it to offset the tingles. If you have a hard time tolerating this temporary effect, you can try a product with a lower dose. Still, you’ll experience the best effects if you use the full clinical dose.
As we have seen, lactic acid is a normal reaction to exercise. It can be uncomfortable during an intense set. Yet it does not have to slow you down. The tips in this article provide ways to get rid of lactic acid in the muscles. Use these tips and get more out of your training sessions!
- Raju, P. S., Madhavi, S., Prasad, K. V., Reddy, M. V., Reddy, M. E., Sahay, B. K., & Murthy, K. J. (1994). Comparison of effects of yoga & physical exercise in athletes. The Indian journal of medical research, 100, 81–86.
- Magnesium Uses, Dosage & Side Effects – Drugs.com
- Primary Role of B Complex Vitamins (home-remedies-for-you.com)
- Hobson, R. M., Saunders, B., Ball, G., Harris, R. C., & Sale, C. (2012). Effects of β-alanine supplementation on exercise performance: a meta-analysis. Amino acids, 43(1), 25–37. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00726-011-1200-z