If you’re an active person, chances are that you’ve experienced post-workout soreness more than once. This is a normal occurrence among gym-goers and athletes, and nothing to worry much about – unless the pain becomes intense!
That said, more often than not post-workout muscle soreness is bearable and for some people, it can even feel good. It’s usually a sign that you worked hard and that your muscles need to recover, but it being common doesn’t mean that you should always ignore it…
In this article, we’ll talk about muscle soreness and how it relates to your workouts. From why it happens to how to improve muscle recovery and reduce soreness. Plus, the golden question – should you work out while sore?
We have all the answers for you, so keep reading!
What causes muscle soreness?
During your workouts, your muscles are constantly working under tension, whether you’re doing bodyweight or weighted exercises. These repeated movements cause microtears in your muscle fibers due to the stress they’re put under, and the muscle pain that you later experience is an inflammatory response known as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) or simply muscle soreness.
Most of the time, DOMS can feel like one or several of these symptoms combined:
- Muscle pain
- Joint stiffness
- Limited range of motion
- Heightened tenderness
Usually, this soreness appears a couple of hours post-exercise and can last up to 5 days after your last workout, reaching its peak between 48 and 72 hours post-workout – but this isn’t always the case!
Muscle soreness is more prominent when you’re a beginner or you’re trying out new and demanding exercises since your muscles still need to get used to the new stress, so the recovery process can be somewhat painful. This pain is far less common when you’re doing exercises and movements you’ve already mastered.
Do sore muscles mean you had an effective workout?
If you’re familiar with the muscle growth process known as hypertrophy, you know that to grow new muscle you first need to damage your muscle fibers so that your body can repair said muscle damage and build new tissue on top. So… does that mean that soreness is an indicator of an effective workout?
Well, not really! And here’s why…
As we previously mentioned, those who are just starting their fitness journey or are trying new exercises and challenging their muscles in new ways are more prone to muscle aches. However, with time your muscles get stronger and tougher and they are able to withstand more challenging exercises without feeling sore.
Now, that doesn’t mean that you’re not building muscle anymore. While growing new muscle tissue gets more difficult with time, it still happens, you just don’t feel as sore as before (or at all), and the microtears to your muscle fibers aren’t always painful.
So you can drop the “no pain, no gain” mentality – it’s perfectly possible to have an effective workout without experiencing post-workout soreness!
Should you work out while sore?
This is where it can get tricky. Because muscle soreness is so common among beginners, you would think that you should be fine working out while sore since that’s how you make progress. But there are times when rest should be prioritized depending on the symptoms that you have and how long they have lasted.
When is it safe to work out with DOMS?
- Your symptoms are mild and the pain isn’t intense
- The soreness doesn’t affect your workout form
- You can work around the sore area without worsening the pain
- You’re able to go through the full range of movement without compensating
When is it unsafe to work out with DOMS?
- The pain is too uncomfortable or disruptive
- You’re not physically able to keep proper form
- The soreness makes normal tasks difficult such as getting out of bed
- Pain in the same area has lasted for over a week
- You need painkillers to ease the soreness
The bottom line is that yes, you can work out while sore as long as you listen to your body and don’t push it past the limit. Soreness can be very mild, but it can also affect your workout form and even turn into sharp pain, so don’t power through a workout just because you feel like you have to.
Also, remember that the same muscle group shouldn’t be targeted twice in a row. Wait at least two days before you train that area again so that your muscles have time to recover and repair the previous damage without risking overtraining or possible injuries!
And if the soreness is bad enough that you feel like working out isn’t a good idea, you can skip the workout and instead do a few static stretches or yoga as active recovery so you can keep moving without stressing your muscles. As long as you’re not adding more strain to your muscles, light activity should be good.
Tips to improve muscle recovery
While soreness can sometimes be inevitable, there are ways to make the pain lighter or even avoid it completely. Here are a few ways to improve muscle recovery post-workout so you can avoid the more unpleasant DOMS symptoms:
Make sure to warm up and cool down
One of the most effective ways to reduce soreness post-workout is to prepare your muscles for each workout and then help them release tension right after.
Warming up by performing light dynamic stretching before your workout will ensure that your muscles are warm and ready to move, and it gets your blood flowing. When it comes to cooling down post-workout, a few minutes of low-impact cardio and static stretching is the way to go. This will help your muscles relax and your heart rate go back to normal.
Drink plenty of water throughout the day
Water is vital for all bodily functions, and that includes moving. Your muscles need water to both function and recover properly, and staying hydrated also keeps your joints lubricated, reducing fatigue and soreness after each workout.
So make sure to drink plenty of water before, during, and after your workouts so you can stay in tip-top shape, no matter if it’s a light workout or if you don’t sweat much.
Prioritize active recovery over full rest
Instead of spending your rest days laying down watching your favorite show, try spending at least half an hour doing some active recovery so that your muscles keep moving! You can try low-impact activities such as walking, cycling, dynamic stretching, or even swimming if you have access to a pool.
Try foam rolling your muscles
A great way to release the built-up tension from your muscles is to try self-myofascial release, also known as foam rolling. You just need a foam roller or a soft ball that you can roll against your muscles to help soften and tissue and relax your muscles. This will help release any tension post-workout, increase blood flow, and it doubles as a nice massage!
Keep your exercise routine well split
As we mentioned before, you should avoid training the same muscle group two days in a row. Your muscles need to rest and recover properly, especially if you’re already feeling sore, and overworking them is only going to hinder your progress and make matters worse.
Make sure to keep an effective training split that trains a different part of the body each day, such as separating your days into upper body and lower body. This will ensure that your muscles have enough time to recover between workouts to reduce the possibility of DOMS.
Your health always comes first
Even if exercising is a crucial part of your daily routine, nothing is ever more important than your health. If you’re ever feeling very sore, take some time away from the gym to rest and recover. And if the pain persists or you experience other symptoms such as severe swelling, bruising, or numbness, don’t try to fight it and seek medical advice as soon as possible!