From natural methods to ancient techniques, here's how you can release muscle tension without torturing yourself.
You just finished an intense, sweaty HIIT workout—go you! But the victory of today could easily turn into the sore muscles of tomorrow. Good news: Whether you pushed past a plateau, worked your muscles in a whole new way, or simply got back to it after a week off, feeling sore is perfectly normal. Still, you'll want to relax those stiff muscles and release the tension so you'll be ready to crush your next workout.
Sure, you could foam roll—which definitely has its benefits. But if you're still getting used to that sort of "good pain," don't have access to a foam roller, or just want more muscle-relieving tools in your arsenal, there are plenty of other ways to relieve sore muscles STAT.
Here, experts weigh in on seven great ways to release that tension and avoid chronic pain, so you can get back to the gym and kick some serious butt.
1. Use Tennis or Lacrosse Ball
You might already use a tennis ball to roll under your feet after one too many hours in heels, but Holly Keskey, mind body manager and core fusion instructor at Exhale Spa, recommends using it on your glutes.
"Grab a ball of any sort (choose based on preference for hardness and intensity) and sit on it. It will release the piriformis (a small muscle near the outside of your glute) and a lot of other tiny stabilizing muscles that may be pulling up or down, creating tension in the legs, hips, and back," says Keskey.
2. Try Cupping
By now you've heard of cupping. It's a popular form of physical therapy among celebrities and Olympians alike. (Heck, Kim Kardashian even tried facial cupping.) But if you've been too nervous to try the what-looks-to-be-painful treatment, those sore quads might finally change your mind.
By using small cups that create a vacuum, drawing the skin and tissue inside them, cupping encourages blood flow, releasing sore muscles and reducing pain. It may even help improve performance and strengthen the immune system by breaking up old scar tissue and "extracting toxins" that have built up in the body, as reported in What the Heck Are Those Purple Spots All Over Michael Phelps?
3. See an Acupuncturist
Strength training and weight lifting create tiny tears in your muscle fibers, and it's when they recover that you see the growth. But these kinds of acute injuries can cause tightening of muscles, with swelling, stiffness, and pain, says Christina Ferrari-Noonan, an acupuncturist in Chicago. By using strategically placed thin needles on trigger points, acupuncture stimulates recovery and minimizes muscle soreness, which can become chronic if you work out regularly, says Ferrari-Noonan.
4. Take a Contrast Shower
Turns out those post-workout showers do more than just eliminate the sweaty stench. Contrast showers, which are when you alternate between hot and cold water for 20 to 30 seconds each, have been said to ward off muscle tension, says Dustin Raymer, M.S., C.E.S., fitness director at Structure House, a weight-loss and wellness center in North Carolina. Raymer recommends extreme temps in either direction—to get the most benefits, you'll need to turn the faucet as cold as you can handle and as hot. To get the best results, repeat for 10 or so rounds.
"The theory is that you are creating an external 'pumping' of the blood by cooling the muscles (pushing blood away from sore muscles) and then heating the muscles (pulling blood toward those muscles)," he says. Essentially, hot water increases blood flow and cold restricts it, and going back and forth is suggested to break down the lactic acid in your muscles, which is causing the tension and soreness.
5. Cool Down with Active Recovery
Instead of just stopping your workout abruptly, doing a few stretches, and hopping in the shower, take a few moments to engage in light movement to cool down the muscles and boost circulation, says Raymer.
"Try to limit your sedentary time post-workout," he says. "Instead of leaving the session and kicking your feet up, try to cool down with 10 to 15 minutes of light cardio and/or stretching." A good option might be to do an active cool-down on a stationary bike on low resistance.
6. Hit the Sauna
Here's a new reason to hit the spa. Hot baths or saunas are alternative methods for encouraging muscle regeneration, according to Philipp Hagspiel, head of research and development at Freeletics, an online training platform.
The heat will stimulate blood circulation and replenish diminished oxygen in the cells of your muscles, he says. And you can add stretching to the mix when in the sauna, as your muscles will be loose and more malleable.
7. Invest In a Compression System
If the DIY approach isn't for you, recovery boots or sleeves, such as those in a Normatec compression system, could be an option, says Kelly Starrett, Reebok brand partner and founder of MobilityWOD. But be prepared to make an investment, as these devices don't come cheap ($1500+). You'll maximize the rewards if you do it regularly, says Starrett. Rounds last roughly 20 minutes.
By strategically compressing areas of your body where you hold tension or find soreness (think: legs, arms, hips), these recovery sleeves aim to flush out any inflammation and improve circulation throughout, speeding up recovery and cell turnover.