Being in pain from sore muscles after a workout is no fun. (unless you live for and chase that kind of pain…) Is muscle soreness essential to progressing in the gym? Why does it even occur? And, most importantly, what can you do to reduce its effects so you can get back to feeling your best as soon as possible? Read on to get the answers to those questions and our personal tips and recommendations for tools that can help you accelerate your recovery process.
Why am I sore after working out? (The science)
In its natural and healthy state, the human body is in a balanced state called homeostasis. Any demands we place on our body, such as performing strenuous exercise, place certain stress on it that threatens to move the body out of its balanced state. Recovery is then required to restore homeostasis in the body and bring it back to balance.
During a workout, microscopic tears in the connective tissue are created. Feeling sore means feeling the inflammation caused by those tears. In essence, the feeling of soreness is an alarm response from our body to the stressors we placed on it (exercise).
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)
The soreness you feel after working out is referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS for short. It most often occurs after performing a new type of workout or an exercise that you are not used to, causing damage to the muscle. Interestingly, it appears to be most frequently caused by the eccentric (decelerating) as opposed to the concentric (accelerating) movements of an exercise (NASM). DOMS typically peaks 24-48 hours after exercising.
Repeatedly performing the exercise or style of workout that made us sore in the first place helps our body get used to it, or adapt to the stressor, and it minimizes the future occurrence of DOMS.
Should I not get sore at all, then?
The quick answer: No. There is nothing wrong with experiencing some muscle soreness after an intense bout of exercise after which you allow your body to recover again to restore homeostasis and enable resistance adaption (aka allowing your body to get used to the exercise or type of workout and become stronger).
However, physiological stress that is not followed by proper recovery (commonly known as overtraining) can lead to compromised homeostasis and lower immune function and can increase the likelihood of injury and illness (NASM). Keeping up with a good recovery regimen, taking adequate rest days, and re-fueling after your workouts is key to keeping healthy.
Is it good to be ‘this sore’ after my workout?
One of the biggest myths in the fitness world is that you have to be sore after a workout session, or else you did not go hard enough or you won’t make any progress.
Soreness does not equal progress or success in the gym. While muscle tears can be regarded as the first step toward resistance development or “making gains”, there is too little scientific proof to confirm that delayed onset muscle soreness is the best predictor of this.
You do not have to chase the burn and soreness that keeps you from moving your body, prevents you from stretching, or being able to sit down on a chair. Progress can be made safely and workouts can be super effective without experiencing the discomfort of having sore muscles after workouts.
How can I avoid muscle soreness after workouts?
If you’re tired of not being able to sit down after a heavy leg day or not being able to lift your arms over your head after training your upper body and want to do whatever you can to avoid this soreness in the future, you have a few options.
Approaching training gradually and progressively is helpful to get your body accustomed to the strains of certain exercises without placing too much stress on the body all at once which leaves you with lots of soreness.
Begin training at lower intensities that your body can tolerate, and slowly progress to incorporating heavier weights, faster speeds, shorter rest periods, etc. depending on your goals.
If you’ve been out of the gym for a while and are just getting back to it, it is smart to start training at lower intensities again as well. You will work your way up to your previous training intensities again more quickly, but approaching your return to exercise in a slow and progressive manner helps prevent long periods of muscle soreness.
How long is it normal to be sore after working out?
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) typically begins 24-48 hours after the triggering exercise and can last up to 5 days if not treated perfectly.
Is it safe to exercise with sore muscles?
This is a fine line and comes down to how you are feeling.
Being very sore and training the sore muscle group again before allowing it to recover can cause potentially dangerous movement compensations. In other words, you are compensating for the painful muscles by adjusting your form, which can increase the likelihood of injuries.
If you are experiencing light soreness in just one part of your body, a good idea is to simply train a different muscle group or body part during your next workout to give the sore muscles a break.
If you are feeling physically fatigued and your body is asking for a rest day, make sure you give it one. Further tearing already torn muscle fibers by pushing through the soreness and continuing your workout regimen can delay the recovery process and cause DOMS to persist for longer than it really has to, so we don’t recommend pushing it too much. Read more about what you can do on active rest days in the section below!
Do I need to take rest days when I’m sore?
Incorporating sufficient rest days and adequate recovery regimens is crucial to a healthy and balanced fit life.
The goal of rest days and recovery is to bring your body back up to speed, to allow it to heal and feel refreshed and ready to exercise again. Pushing yourself too hard and never taking rest days is counterproductive in the long term and can increase the risk of injury and illnesses.
If you love exercising and don’t particularly enjoy your days off (we feel you, the post-exercise endorphin high is real!), active rest days are for you!
Not doing anything when you’re sore or resting is not always the best approach. Instead of laying down flat on a rest day and not moving at all, it is recommended to do some light exercises, such as
- low-intensity cycling
- use of recovery tools
- other light movements
to keep the blood flowing through your body, bring oxygen-rich blood to the damaged muscle tissues, and to remove cellular waste products that were built up while exercising.
This effect is better achieved by doing light exercise than by just sitting down, so taking active rest days may help you feel better faster. Whichever type of light movement you enjoy and pick for your active rest day should keep your heart rate between 30-60% of your maximum, or allow you to keep a stable conversation while doing it. These recovery sessions are not supposed to be hard, keep them light and easy.
Simple ways to help ease muscle soreness
The simplest way to ease sore muscles, restore your range of motion, remove built-up lactic acid and find your way back to a state of overall health and wellness is through gentle movement.
Determine the aching muscle groups in your body and try gentle stretches, or sign up for a yoga class (in person or via YouTube videos). Nature walks or low-intensity bike rides are also fantastic ways to keep your blood flowing and allow your body to recover.
You can also draw yourself an ice bath and perform cold therapy to reduce inflammation or find an athlete recovery center in your city to get access to professional recovery equipment for a period of time.
Tools that can help prevent and reduce muscle soreness and stiffness
If the fully natural route doesn’t feel like enough and you want to give your muscles some extra TLC, the following three recovery products are our favorites and great tools to kick delayed onset muscle soreness and enable muscle recovery post-exercise.
These are great choices for you if you exercise a lot and want the benefits of professional recovery tools from the comfort of your own home, without having to make trips to recovery centers or pay their fees each time you need the tool.
Normatec Compression Boots
Compression boots are likely the most comfortable and relaxing kind of recovery product out there. All you do is slip into the boots like they are a pair of pants, zip them up, choose the compression intensity and duration, and lay back, read a book, take a nap, or watch your favorite show while you get a wonderful massage.
The dynamic air compression of Normatec compression boots effectively increases circulation (blood flow), helps flush out lactic acid, decreases muscle fatigue after strenuous exercise, and promotes recovery and healing.
The Normatec system even comes with an app that lets you closely monitor your recovery, personalize and save settings, and share your recovery insights with others.
If you perform high-intensity workouts often, the Normatec compression boots may become your best recovery buddy soon as you enjoy your favorite TV shows after a hard workout while the Normatec system gets the massage done for you without any further work required. Click here to see how Normatec stacks up against the competition.
Theragun is a handheld percussion massage device that allows you to comfortably apply pressure to sore areas of the body to improve blood flow, restore range of motion, speed up recovery and alleviate muscle pain. These massage guns allow you to get a deep tissue massage without leaving your home, and may help your muscles recover faster after an intense workout.
Theragun Mini makes a perfect addition to your gym bag due to its size, coming in at only 1.43 lbs with a battery life of 2.5 hours, you’ll bet set for a ton of post-workout self-massage sessions with this device. Check out our full review here.
Hyperice Vyper 2.0
The Hyperice Vyper is a foam roll that incorporates the vast benefits of vibration technology. Vibration therapy has been proven to help decrease delayed onset muscle soreness, restore full range of motion and improve blood flow. Beyond recovery, it can help improve muscular strength and power development, so this foam roller is a powerful tool worthy of your attention!
The Hyperice Vyper offers three vibration speeds, is TSA carry-on approved and its lithium battery is easily rechargeable, making it a convenient, portable, and easy to use tool for muscle recovery. Check out a more extensive review here.