I recently did a Q&A with Men’s Fitness on muscle soreness, which required quite a bit of research. Given muscle soreness is such a popular topic and the information is fresh in my memory, I’m excited to share with you the this comprehensive guide to muscle soreness.
Did you know you don’t get sore from lifting a weight?
Did you know the body has a protective mechanism against muscle soreness?
Read on for more interesting insights into muscle soreness.
What is Muscle Soreness?
While we know muscle soreness can create a feeling of discomfort, or pain, we don’t know exactly what it is, or what causes it. The most popular theory is that muscle soreness is caused by “microtrauma”, which forms microscopic tears in muscle fibers.
Interestingly, muscles only experience soreness as a result of resisting weight, not while the weight is lifted. For example, curling a dumbbell upwards like in a biceps curl does NOT cause muscle soreness. Once the weight is curled up, lowering the dumbbell forces the muscle to be stretched as it resists gravity, which causes the microtrauma and muscle soreness. So in theory, if you completed only the positive phase (lifting the weight) of every exercise without resisting the weight on the way down, you would experience no muscle soreness.
There are two types of muscle soreness:
1) Acute Muscle Soreness – This is the muscle soreness your feel during and shortly after a workout
2) Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness – also referred to as DOMS, this is the muscle soreness you feel 24 hours after your workout, which may last up to 72 hours.
After a your muscles get sore, they rapidly adapt to reduce further damage from the same exercises, which is called the “repeated-bout” effect. Not only is soreness reduced the next time you complete the same exercise, but any swelling, reduced strength, or reduced range of motion has a much faster recovery.
How To Relieve Muscle Soreness
Unfortunately, there are no scientifically proven ways to speed up the recovery of muscle soreness, but there are handful that are worth trying and several that can at least help alleviate the pain.1 2
1) Rest – Getting ample sleep can help your body recuperate faster. Not getting enough sleep will make your muscle soreness feel more intense.
2) Active Recovery – This may seem counterintuitive, but completing light exercise during the recovery phase may be the most promising method to not only alleviate the pain, but help reduce soreness faster. If I had to choose one method that was capable of speeding up recovery, I would choose active recovery. Consider activities like a light jog, walking on an incline on a treadmill, and swimming, which help promote blood circulation to your muscles.
3) Hydration – Water can help flush out the toxins so the more water you drink, the better. Not drinking enough water can cause the soreness to worsen, or even cause muscle cramps.
4) Proper Nutrition – A balanced diet may help reduce muscle soreness. If you are deficient in potassium, an electrolyte which is essential for muscle contractions, or you are not eating enough protein, muscle soreness may take longer to heal.
5) NSAIDS – non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Aspirin, or Alleve, can help reduce the pain of soreness, but does not speed up recovery. It’s not advisable to use these medications on a consistent basis to treat muscle soreness, only to help relieve the pain of an intense bout of soreness.
Topical gels like BenGay, or Icy Hot3 can also be helpful to alleviate the pain, but they have no affect on the underlying muscle. Other muscle soreness treatments such as such as ice, cold baths, Epsom Salt, massage, or light stretching have not been proven to either reduce pain significantly, or speed up recovery. But they may be worth a try because it doesn’t matter what the research says if it works for your body, right?
Now putting all this together, if you are experiencing intense muscle soreness and pain after a workout, NSAIDS, topical gels, hydration, rest, and a well balanced diet is your best bet to relieve the pain. Then as the soreness becomes more bearable, throw in some active recovery, which has a powerful analgesic effect and may actually help speed up the recovery process.
How to Prevent Muscle Soreness
If you are experiencing, or have experienced intense muscle soreness, the chances are likely you completed more volume and intensity of exercise than your body could handle.
Your ability to prevent muscle soreness depends on three primary factors:
1) Fitness Level – If you have a very high level of fitness, the chances are it’s not easy for you to get sore, even from a very intense workout. If on the other hand you exercise infrequently, even a light workout can make you very sore.
2) Volume & Intensity of Exercise – The volume of exercise is typically defined as the total number of sets and reps (sets x reps), or distance while the intensity is based upon the amount of weight used and the rest in between sets. If you use either more volume than you are used to in a workout, such as completing 7 sets of push-ups vs. 3 sets, or you use more weight than you are accustomed to, you will likely experience some muscle soreness.
3) Familiarity of Exercise – If you complete exercises that you’ve never done before, you are much more likely to experience soreness the next day. Let’s say you have never used the rowing machine before, then one day you spend 10 minutes rowing intensely, the next day you may experience intense soreness in muscles that may not be used to that new movement pattern.
Extreme muscle soreness occurs when beginners with a low fitness level use a lot of volume and intensity with unfamiliar exercises. It’s the perfect storm.
So how do you prevent muscle soreness?
Here are a few general guidelines that are useful:
1) If you are a beginner, take it slow
If one word could best define how to prevent muscle soreness, it’s by using a “progressive” approach to exercise (See: Exercise Progression). If you haven’t worked out in a while, or workout intermittently, it may only take 10-20 minutes to get a serious workout that gets you pretty sore the next day. No need to try to push yourself too hard if you don’t normally workout consistently.
2) Try not to complete 10-20% more exercise volume, or intensity from one workout to the next.
If you normally jog 5 miles at a given pace, then don’t go much above 6-7 miles the next workout. Rather, progress your running workouts over time. In terms of lifting weights, if you normally complete 4 sets of chest related exercises, don’t go much above 5 the next time. Certainly you can exceed the 10-20% threshold, but the chances of experiencing severe muscle soreness increase.
3) If completing unfamiliar exercises, use lighter weight
Given the exercise is already unfamiliar, it may not take much weight, or intensify to create pretty intense soreness.
Muscle Soreness FAQ
Across the BuiltLean website, we get a wide range of questions just about every week about muscle soreness. If the question you have in your head was not answered already, hopefully you see your question below. If not, just leave your question in the comment section.
If you do not feel any muscle soreness after a workout, is that bad?
The quality of a workout is not dictated by how sore you are. The idea is to train hard enough to create a “training response”, but it’s not a good idea to workout so hard that you are sore for a week. If your muscles are able to recover faster before your next workout, you should be able to get even better results. Mild to moderate soreness in your muscles that lasts for 1-2 days makes sense, but there’s no good reason to be very sore. In addition, if you worked out hard and hit your body hard but do not get sore the next day, it’s a sign you’re getting in great shape.
How do you tell the difference between muscle soreness and a muscle strain?
Muscle soreness can last up to 72 hours. If you find the feeling of pain in your muscles is lasting for as long as a week, or more, it’s likely you strained your muscle. The difference between muscle soreness and a muscle strain is primarily one of degree. Muscle soreness is created when the muscle fibers are being torn slightly, which helps the muscle adapt to build stronger muscles. A muscle strain is an overtraining symptom that can occur when a large amount muscle fibers are torn to a significant degree and even the tendons attached to the muscle may be affected. The tearing of the muscle can also damage small blood vessels, which can cause local bleeding along with pain caused by irritation of the nerve endings in the area.
How sore should you be after a workout?
Some mild to moderate pain/soreness is expected after a tough workout, but it’s important to differentiate between the “good” pain of muscle soreness and a hard workout and the “bad” pain of joint pain, or excessive muscle strain. If you’re on a program to get lean and you are sore for more than a few days, you may need to cut back on the volume, or intensity of your workouts, and/or spend more time on recovery (i.e. drinking enough fluids, working on tissue quality with a foam roller and massage ball, stretching, active rest etc.). 4 If you are sore all the time, in some ways it defeats the purpose of working out because we want to workout to enhance how we look and feel right? But if we can barely move our arms after a tough workout for a few days, that’s not very useful. One more thing, you will generally be more sore when starting a program of course, so the soreness should lessen over time.
How long should you give your muscles time to recover after a workout?
While research shows that continued use of a sore muscle has no adverse effect on recovery from soreness and does not make the muscle damage worse, I think we have to use our common sense when exercising. A general rule of thumb is if you feel pain from muscle soreness above a 5 out of 10 , you may consider resting for another day, or two before hitting that muscle group, or movement pattern that feels sore. Unless you are a competitive athlete and you have no choice but to exercise, it may be worth doing some extra foam rolling and taking it easy if your muscles feel very sore.
Is it ok to workout the same muscle group 2-3x per week?
The short answer is it depends on the volume and intensity of your workouts and the specific exercises you choose. If you are in good shape and complete only a few light sets of let’s say pushups, you should be able to recover probably by the next day. If you however do 9, or 12 sets of 3-4 heavy chest exercises like bench press, then you may need to rest 5 days before doing another chest exercise. In addition, completing the same movement pattern for several sets (i.e. horizontal pushing) can also take more time to recover. So the amount of rest each muscle group needs is dependent on the intensity and volume of your workouts.
Are there any muscle soreness recovery treatments that have worked for you?
- Ingraham, P. You Can’t Beat Muscle Soreness. The myth of prevention or treatment for muscle fever, nature’s little tax on exercise . 2012. ↩
- Nosaka, K. “Muscle Soreness and Damage and the Repeated-Bout Effect“. In Tiidus, Peter M. 2008. Skeletal muscle damage and repair. Human Kinetics. pp. 59–76. ↩
- Johar P, Grover V, Topp R, Behm DG. A comparison of topical menthol to ice on pain, evoked tetanic and voluntary force during delayed onset muscle soreness.” Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2012 Jun;7(3):314-22. ↩
- Lewis PB, Ruby D, Bush-Joseph CA. “Muscle soreness and delayed-onset muscle soreness.” Clin Sports Med. 2012 Apr; 31(2):255-62. ↩