Fitness pros weigh in on whether that post-workout muscle soreness is a good or bad thing, and what you can do about it

By Kylie Gilbert
Updated July 25, 2019
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Muscle soreness after a hard sweat sesh can feel like a badge of honor; it's a reminder that you got your butt up in the morning to make time for a workout and really pushed yourself. But what does that mean for the next day's workout? Is working out when sore a bad idea?

While some soreness after a new or intense workout (such as this crazy-effective butt-sculpting routine) is totally natural, a "no pain, no gain" mindset can have serious consequences if you're going full steam ahead when you should really be slowing down. Yes, the work you do in the gym is important, but it's just as important to give your body sufficient time to recover in between workouts, according to Kirk Campbell, M.D., a sports medicine surgeon and assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at NYU Langone Medical Center.

While you may be tempted to power through, there's great danger in not allowing ample time for your muscles to rest, explains Leesa Galatz, M.D., chair of the orthopedic department at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Since the soreness you're experiencing is actually due to microscopic muscle damage, the muscle needs to recover before it can work at its optimal capacity again. A tired muscle that hasn't had time to recover is more susceptible to a serious muscle tear or excessive tissue damage, she explains.

That burn you feel 24 to 48 hours after an intense workout is called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and it's enough to make you want to put down the kettlebell and pick up a cocktail. But press on! We talked to fitness and nutrition expert Harley Pasternak, M.Sc., trainer to celebrities like Lady Gaga, Megan Fox, and Halle Berry, about why (some) pain is good.

"The idea behind resistance training is that you're basically tearing something and creating a microtrauma in the muscle," Pasternak says. "When the muscle recovers, it's going to recover stronger and denser than it was before." (This is all the science you need to know about burning fat and building muscle.)

Just make sure what you're suffering from is DOMS and not an injury. "A good way to tell the difference is if the pain is bilateral," Pasternak says. Having one very sore shoulder after you've worked both shoulders could spell injury. If you feel normal soreness in a muscle, ligament, or tendon, it's DOMS and you can continue working out around it, Pasternak says. In the case of arms and shoulders, you can work your quads, abs, or glutes and then move back to your upper body in a few days.

To avoid feeling the pain of DOMS the next time around, Pasternak suggests starting your exercise routine slow. "Increase your resistance gradually so that your muscles adapt to your new workout plan." (And add these 10 recovery-aid eats to your menu!)

But should you work out when sore? Or are you too sore to work out? We break it down below.

Should You Exercise with Sore Muscles?

The answer is a hard and fast NO if...

  1. Getting out of bed makes you want to cry. We all know that feeling. But if you're having a hard time getting out of bed in the morning, or it's difficult to sit down or stand up the next day after a heavy squat sesh, you have a clear answer. Give your body more time to rest and instead focus on recovery with dynamic stretching or using a foam roller, says Campbell.
  2. It's hard to take the stairs. If it's excessively difficult to walk up the stairs, you know your body is telling you to cool it for a couple of days and focus on working different muscles. Instead, try a low-intensity, low-impact workout like going for a walk, using the elliptical, or going for an easy bike ride or swim, which may help speed up the recovery. (Related: Is it OK to Get a Massage If You’re ~Really~ Sore?)
  3. You need a pain reliever to help you "push through." It's important not to mask muscle pain by popping Advil before working out, just to help you grin and bear it, Campbell says. If you need to take a pain reliever to make it through, you haven't given your muscles enough time to recover.
  4. If your muscle soreness doesn't feel better with movement. Yes, your body might feel stiff and sore when you first get out of bed in the morning, but if it doesn't get better after you walk around, it's a sign you're too sore to work out. (Related: 4 Muscle Roller Sticks That Are Almost As Good As a Real Massage)
  5. You're still feeling sore days later. As you've likely experienced, muscle soreness may not set in immediately—it's usually at its worst 24 to 48 hours after a workout, Galatz explains. But if you've given it three to four days and are still feeling sore and it hasn't improved, this is a key sign you've ventured into too-sore-to-work-out territory and should go see a doc to make sure it isn't something more serious, Campbell advises.
  6. If your urine is dark and your muscles are swollen. Go see your doc, stat. This could be a sign of rhabdomyolysis, a rare but life-threatening condition if not treated right away. It's caused by the body actually breaking down muscles and releasing myoglobin and creatine kinase into the blood stream, which can lead to kidney damage. Although uncommon, it has been found in people performing intense conditioning workouts such as CrossFit, Campbell warns. (Snooze off the soreness! These tech products can help you recover from exercise as you sleep.)

4 Tips for Reducing Muscles Soreness

Did you fail the “should I work out when sore” test? There are plenty of things you can do to ease those lingering aches as you get back up to speed (in fact, we have a full list of ways to relieve sore muscles).

Try four of Pasternack’s faves:

  1. Warm up. "Increase body temperature to help prepare your muscles for the shock of an intense workout," Pasternak says.
  2. Stay hydrated. "A lack of electrolytes can make muscles sore," Pasternak says. He recommends drinking easily digested fluids so you can power up and avoid an upset stomach. "Look for beverages with no protein or stimulants, like Powerade Zero." (Related: “Spending An Entire Weekend Focusing on Recovery Opened My Eyes to How Much I Needed It”)
  3. Ice sore muscles. "Have a cold pack handy to reduce pain and inflammation," Pasternak says. ACE has an Instant Cold Compress that's super convenient. "Give it a twist and you've got instant ice."
  4. Do cardio. "A cardio workout increases blood flow and acts as a filter system. It brings nutrients like oxygen, protein, and iron to the muscles that you've been training and helps them recover faster. As the blood leaves the muscles, it takes some of the metabolic by-products with it (like carbon dioxide and lactic acid) that may be causing DOMS."
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