What you’ll learn here
There’s something strangely satisfying about the workout soreness you get after an intense session. It feels like a badge of honor. A bodily confirmation that you got in a super effective workout – and will soon reap all the benefits.
But at some point, you’ve got to wonder: “What’s up with this seemingly never-ending pain?! What’s even causing this workout soreness? Should I still hit the gym later?”
To help you get answers to all these burning – pun entirely intended – questions, here’s everything you need to know about what’s happening within your muscles. Also: find out whether workout soreness warrants a change in your fitness routine below.
What causes workout soreness?
The soreness you feel after a workout is something called delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS.
Your body then responds to these micro-tears as they would with wounds: increasing inflammation (which kickstarts the healing and repairing process).
Thus, explaining the pain.
Workout soreness typically begins to develop between 12 and 24 hours after your workout – and peaks around 24 to 72 hours after your training stimulus. You can think of DOMS as a normal part of the muscle-building process (3).
Muscle soreness after a workout (i.e. DOMS) occurs because working out creates microscopic tears in the muscles, which invites inflammation – kickstarting the healing and repairing process.
Which types of exercise are more likely to cause DOMS?
As you may have realized, not every single workout you do leads to soreness.
What’s up with that? Well, there are a few known factors that influence how likely you’ll be hobbling about the next few days. Let’s take a look at them:
Strength exercises have 2 primary phases: concentric and eccentric.
During the concentric movement, your muscle fiber is producing force as it contracts. For example, on a bicep curl, the concentric movement occurs when you’re curling the weight up towards your biceps.
During the eccentric movement, your muscle fiber is producing force as it lengthens. On the bicep curl, the eccentric movement occurs when you’re lowering the weight down to the starting position.
Here’s something you need to know.
So, a workout that involves a high degree of focus on eccentric movements (either through tempo changes or selection of exercises) is more likely to cause soreness in the days after.
Unfamiliar movement patterns
Have you ever signed up for a new workout class … only to end up with soreness in parts of your body you never knew existed?
Yep. That’s normal.
When you push your body to perform movement patterns that it’s not accustomed to, you’re more likely to involve muscle groups that you’ve typically overlooked in training.
Some possible culprits include the rotator cuffs, glute medius, and adductors.
This, in turn, stresses these ‘underutilized’ muscles. And there you have it. The reason why you’re likely to feel sore after trying a new workout plan.
Increased training volume
Usually squat 70 kg, but attempting 80 kg now? Usually deadlift 90 kg for 5 sets of 3 reps – but trying the same weight for 5 sets of 5 reps?
That’s a recipe for workout soreness.
In general, the intensity of your workout influences how likely you are to experience DOMS. The more intense your sessions, the more stress you’re putting on your muscle tissues.
That also means more damage. And soreness.
So, if you up the intensity of your workouts (by increasing your training volume or cutting your rest periods) suddenly, the increased stimulus will likely leave you with more soreness than your regular sessions.
You’re more likely to experience workout soreness after doing a ton of eccentric-focused movements, trying out a new workout, and increasing the intensity of your session.
Does workout soreness mean growth?
From the looks of it, workout soreness is a good thing … right? Not exactly.
Despite the common misconception, greater soreness does not translate to better or quicker muscle-building and/or strength-building results (7). To help illustrate this: just think of Olympic long-distance runners. Do they have huge quads? Or massive hamstrings?
No, they don’t. And yet … we all undoubtedly experience soreness after running.
In fact, too much soreness after a workout can be a bad thing as it throws you off your workout plan! Be honest. How likely are you to head to the gym when you’re struggling to even get out of bed?
What does this all mean for you?
It simply means that you can stop ‘chasing’ soreness after every workout. All you have to do is focus on showing up consistently at the gym – and making sure to progressively overload (i.e. increase your training volume) in a suitable manner. That’s the key to growth.
It’s also worth noting that soreness is one of the signs of overtraining, so be sure to look out for that if you’ve ramped up your training frequency drastically.
Muscle soreness is not a reliable indicator of how effective your workout was – nor of the muscle growth you’ll experience.
Should you workout when sore?
You’re incredibly sore. But as a self-recognized exercise addict, staying away from training is challenging for you.
What should you do? Is it OK for you to continue working out through the DOMS?
Short answer: yes, it’s OK for you to workout when sore. But here’s a caveat. You should avoid working out the same muscle groups that are sore.
Let’s say you did a ton of hip thrusts (bigger butt in the making!) yesterday – and you’re now super sore. In most cases, you should steer clear of glute exercises if you’re heading to the gym today. Train your arms, chest, or even abs. There are so many other muscle groups available!
Now … you must be wondering, “But why are the same muscle groups off-limits? No pain, no gain, right? Shouldn’t I push through the soreness?”
That’s a bad idea.
While you may be tempted to power through the same workouts that got you sore in the first place, you could end up sacrificing long-term progress. The more the merrier doesn’t apply here.
Training a muscle while it’s still sore can reduce the activation of the desired area, reduce its force capacity by 50%, and slow the recovery process (10, 11). As you can imagine, this reduces the load your muscles can handle.
The result? A less effective workout.
You shouldn’t train the same muscle groups that are still sore. Doing so can hinder the effectiveness of your workouts and slow your progress.
When should you stop working out completely?
OK, so you shouldn’t train that specific muscle group still sore from a previous workout.
But are there any cases where you should skip the gym entirely?
Of course. There are a few situations where the answer is a hard and fast no – even if you’re not planning to train those sore muscle groups:
- You’re crying as you get out of bed: We all know that feeling. If you struggle to swing your legs down from the bed in the morning, or it’s challenging to sit down or stand up the next day, you have a clear answer. Give your body more time to rest.
- You need a pain reliever to ‘push through the pain’: Never mask muscle pain by popping ibuprofen before working out! If you need to take a painkiller to get through your leg presses, you (obviously) haven’t rested enough yet.
- You’re still feeling it 5 days later: Given yourself 3 to 4 days to recover? But still, feeling the same soreness as you did 2 days after the workout? You should probably visit the doctor – to make sure it isn’t something more severe like an actual tear, instead of a microscopic one, for example.
- Your urine is dark-colored, and your muscles are swollen: See your doctor immediately. This could be a sign of rhabdomyolysis, a severe syndrome resulting from direct or indirect muscle injury. The death of muscle fibers and subsequent release of their contents into your bloodstream can lead to severe complications like kidney failure (12, 13, 14)!
No matter how passionate you are about the gym, there are still a few scenarios where you shouldn’t be training when sore. A good example is when you’re holding back tears just trying to get out of bed.
How to recover from workout soreness
While the only surefire remedy to workout soreness is time, there are still a few things you can do that may help speed the process along.
Now, there’s a critical keyword you should take note of – and it’s this: ‘may’.
Many studies have given contradictory results as to whether the following work to relieve DOMS or not. Regardless. There’s no harm trying each of them out; personal experience will dictate if they’ll work for you. And your sore muscles.
- Get in some light movement: Gentle activity (e.g. a walk) can help improve blood flow throughout the body, bringing much-needed nutrients like amino acids and oxygen to muscle tissues – in turn, speeding up the healing process.
- Do some light stretching: This doesn’t technically speed up the actual healing process, but it can make you feel better. How? It does so by increasing your range of motion and releasing tension.
- Stay hydrated: The breakdown of muscle tissues results in waste products. It’s thought that water helps your kidneys and liver filter these out of the body at a quicker rate – which speeds up recovery.
- Go for a massage: Some research shows that massage might alleviate muscle soreness after a workout. Although … the main problem with this recovery method is its cost. Imagine paying for a massage 4 times a week!
- Foam roll after your workout: A budget-friendly form of massage. While foam rolling doesn’t help with the healing process directly, it could stimulate embedded nerve receptors in your muscles. This leads to a rather good ‘releasing’ feeling.
These are just some of the popular approaches. If you’re interested in how different methods stack up, learn about what works for improving sore muscle recovery – and what doesn’t.
Workout soreness should pass over time. In the meantime, studies suggest that active recovery, light stretching, adequate hydration, going for a massage, and foam rolling may help reduce symptoms of DOMS.
Beat workout soreness with adequate sleep and proper nutrition
That said, when it comes to getting rid of workout soreness, you’ll want to make sure that you’re at least doing the basics right.
You can think of the techniques mentioned above as the ‘one-percenters’ of recovery. What you should be getting right are the ‘big rocks’ of recovery.
And that is getting enough sleep and protein – daily. Here’s why:
- Sleep: Your human growth hormone (HGH) – responsible for muscle repair and growth – levels peak when you’re asleep. If you’re not getting enough sleep, your body won’t be able to heal itself optimally. Find out how to improve your sleep here.
- Protein: Amino acids are the building blocks of protein – and, therefore, muscle. Thus, ensuring that you’re hitting your daily protein intake requirement also makes sure that you’re providing your body with the critical nutrients it needs to help your muscles recover from a challenging workout.
Overall, workout soreness is normal; and it shouldn’t be a reason to deter you from trying out something new or progressively overloading on your routine. Just be sure to give your body enough time to recover – and you’ll be on track again really soon.