Getting sore muscles from a workout is a natural part of exercise. You might feel soreness immediately following a workout or for the next couple days. Delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, might leave you wondering if your body is ready for the workout you plan on doing the next day or two. For the most part, exercising while you’re sore is a good idea, but let's dive a little deeper to understand the best way to do it.
Why do we get sore?
When we workout, we are breaking down our muscles. That might sound counter intuitive, but it’s just part of the process of improving fitness. After we break down the muscle, our body repairs itself and prepares for the next workout of similar intensity. The preparation it makes for the workout is exactly the adaptation we’re looking for. For example, if we’re lifting heavy weights, our body will build muscle and improve neuromuscular efficiency so we’re able to lift the heavy weights with more ease next time.
Soreness is the signal we receive from our body that tells us it’s rebuilding from the damage caused by our workout. Our bodies get the most sore when we first start a training program or when we change the intensity, volume, or type of exercises in our fitness routine.
Intensity Example: Mary has been consistently doing three sets of 10 squats with 20lbs and decides to increase to 30lbs. Mary should expect to be sore the next couple of days from that workout.
Volume Example: Matt usually does three sets of 10 push-ups in his resistance training workouts and decides to increase it to four sets of 10 push-ups. Matt should expect to get sore from this change until his body adapts to the new stimulus.
Type of Exercise Example: Susan is a very consistent walker and decides she wants to incorporate resistance training into her fitness routine. Susan should expect to get sore from her resistance training workouts for a while until her body adapts to the new stimulus.
How rapidly we make these changes will determine how sore our body will get. How sore we get will determine what kind of exercise is okay to do in the next couple days.
What kind of exercise is okay?
Exercising different muscle groups
If you’re only sore in specific areas then you should feel free to exercise other muscle groups without risk.
Since soreness tells us that a muscle is being repaired, we don’t want to train it hard again until the soreness has gone away or at least lowered to a mild level. The key word though, is “hard.” Exercising a muscle group that is already sore can be okay if you reduce the stress you place on that muscle group. Here are a couple examples of how to do this:
Example 1: David ran twelve 100-meter sprints yesterday and is sore in his legs. David decides to stay consistent with his training and go for a light 20-minute jog today.
Example 2: Megan did four sets of 20 push-ups yesterday and is sore in her chest muscles. Megan decides to stay consistent with her training and do two sets of 10 push-ups today.
Moderate–low intensity cardio
Even if your legs are sore, don’t shy away from getting in a nice easy cardio workout. It might sound like the last thing you want to do when you’re sore, but doing moderate–low intensity steady-state cardio will actually reduce your soreness temporarily. Staying disciplined to get that workout in will improve your overall fitness and it could end up being the best you feel all day!
Usually soreness is also accompanied by tightness. Doing various forms of mobility-work like yoga, foam rolling, dynamic stretching, or static stretching will help increase blood flow, reduce tightness, and temporarily relieve soreness. Here is a total body dynamic stretching routine that I have my clients do on days when they feel especially tight/sore.
When should I avoid exercise?
There are some risks to exercising if your muscle soreness is extreme. Extreme muscle soreness can change the way you walk, bend down, or move your arms. Doing too much activity with sub-optimal movement patterns increases your risk of injury. Try to be mindful of how you move throughout the day and don’t plan activity that will put you at risk. If you feel your movement patterns are impacted, make adjustments to avoid letting yourself get that sore again in the future.
What can I do to manage my soreness in the future?
If we get sore when we do things our body isn’t used to, it makes sense that we need to stay consistent with our workouts to ensure they don’t keep making us sore.
Gradually progress your training.
Rapid and abrupt changes to our fitness routines will result in more extreme soreness. Extreme soreness will make us less likely to stay consistent with our workouts. Inconsistency will make us more likely to get sore again.
The best way to break the cycle of extreme soreness is to make small incremental progressions to our training over time. That way we can avoid extremely sore days, making us much more likely to stay consistent and see results with less risk of injury.
There is mixed research on the effectiveness of the following strategies, but they’re good habits to get into for a number of other reasons—so I say, why not?
Cool Down: An easy 15-20 minutes of cardio following an intense workout may reduce how long muscle soreness lasts.
Eat Protein after a Workout: Protein is used by the body to repair damaged muscles, so it may also help relieve soreness if we supply the body with enough to do its job.
Drink Water: Hydration is important for every function of the body. It may also help relieve soreness if we ensure our body has enough water before, during, and after our workouts.
So...should you exercise when you’re sore? Yes! But you should be smart with the type of exercise you decide to do.
Soreness is a good indicator that your body is getting stronger, but you can also take it too far. Consistency and gradual progressions are the best strategies for success in your training and for avoiding extreme soreness. Don’t let muscle soreness derail you from your training. If the soreness is too extreme, make the appropriate adjustments and stay as consistent as you can!