Although walking up (or down) the stairs after leg day can be a grueling task, there’s nothing more painfully satisfying than when the post-workout muscle soreness hits. It gives the feeling of accomplishment and confirmation that you put in the work.
On the other hand, if you’ve ever wondered whether your soreness could possibly be an injury, you’re not alone. After all, when DOMS settles in, it can be hard to distinguish between the two.
Thankfully, there are surefire ways to reassure your post-workout self that your pain is strictly from killing it in the gym to knowing when it’s time for some RICE.
Here’s Why You Get Muscle Soreness After Working Out
Exercise and soreness go hand-in-hand and is a completely normal post-workout occurrence. “When your muscles are sore after physical activity, that’s what’s known as delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS,” explains Tony Horton, creator of Power Life and P90X. “It’s extremely common, and can occur when you start a new exercise program, change your exercise routine, or increase the duration or intensity of your regular workout.” He says.
So, what causes that hurt-so-good soreness? Tiny tears within your muscle fibers. Sure, that may sound like an injury, but this process is what propels your fitness goals forward. “When muscles are required to work harder, or in a different way than they’re used to, it causes little microscopic tears to the muscle fibers,” Horton says. This is why pain is felt within the muscle groups recently worked; yet, you remain injury-free.
“This process is actually a good thing; It means your muscles are growing”, Says Horton, and isn’t that the goal? Even though this is where all sorts of soreness and stiffness come into play, your body is working hard to repair and rebuild muscle tissue, making you stronger.
IammotosWhat ‘Normal’ Muscle Soreness Feels Like & How Long It Can Last
As you already know, there are levels of post-exercise muscle soreness ranging from slight tenderness to the classic gym-soreness swagger. Horton explains that your muscles can feel painful, tight, and tender to the touch post-workout, and you may also feel it in your joints as well.
“Moving around and lifting stuff can be a little hairy for a bit, so listen to your body.” He advises. And although it may be tempting to hit the gym and push through this pain, that’s not always a good idea. “Don’t force anything through pain; let your body rest,” Horton says. “The soreness can last anywhere from one to four days, depending on just how intense your activity was relative to what your muscles are used to, as well as your body’s natural ability to recover and repair muscle tissue,” says Horton.
All of that muscle swelling, tenderness, stiffness, pain – all of this can sound scary, but keep in mind, it’s the body’s normal response to strenuous activity. “The key is to arm yourself with all the necessary tools so you can repair and rebuild,” says Horton
These include proper nutrition with a high-quality protein source, getting enough sleep, dynamic stretching, and ample rest periods between workouts using the same major muscle groups. groups (at least a full day of rest).
As you exercise more and more, and change up the workouts to induce what Horton calls muscle confusion. “You’ll notice the periods of soreness can be longer or shorter depending on just how different or intense the workout is, compared to what your muscles are used to,” he says.
Skeletal muscles are highly dynamic tissues that adapt to cope with the increased movement and metabolic demands of exercise. So, they can handle it, even if it hurts to get out of bed the next morning.
Here’s How to Spot an Injury (and what to do about it)
Our bodies do a good job at telling us when something requires TLC. And when it comes to a possible exercise-induced injury, there are a few telltale signs that take the guesswork out of the equation (or pain for that matter).
The D in DOMS stands for “delayed,” meaning the soreness doesn’t occur right away; you usually start feeling it the next day. “You can tell the difference between DOMS and a legitimate injury, like when you pull a muscle and the pain is immediate, it’s sharp, and it doesn’t go away after a few days,” says Horton. Simply put, there’s a difference between the hurt-so-good pain you feel after a workout with soreness peaking hours after training, versus pain occurring immediately and long-lasting.
“If an injury is the case, you should STOP all activity and get it checked out, or at least give it plenty of time to heal,” he advises.
“Pain is telling you something so don’t ignore it,” he says. Again, it’s best to stop all physical activity immediately. “Don’t try to be a tough guy or gal and finish your workout; Putting pressure on an injury is only going to make it worse and take you out for a longer period of time,” says Horton. Raise your hand if you’ve done this exact thing in the past!
The No. 1 thing Horton tells people is to listen to their bodies, if something doesn’t feel right, stop doing it. “Beyond that, if injured, use ice to reduce the swelling and inflammation, and rest so your muscle(s) can heal,” Horton explains.
And if the pain persists, go get it checked out by a specialist. “Don’t let it go on for more than a couple of days if you sense this could be something serious,” he says. It’s better to be safe than sorry, and better to take some time off and heal versus pushing it in the gym and having to take more time off down the road.
How to Treat Muscle Soreness
Stretching before and after workouts and then pampering your muscle between workouts with modalities such as massage, will increase blood flow to muscle groups and aid in the recovery of torn muscle tissue.
Beyond that, “Alternating between ice and heat to reduce inflammation and increase circulation, in conjunction with certain natural compounds help accelerate the recovery process.” says Horton. In Horton’s High Impact Protein, he includes an incredible compound called HMB, which helps your muscles better synthesize the protein, as well as help your muscles recover more quickly from physical activity, which reduces your soreness period.
Good to Know:
An often-overlooked aspect of muscle soreness is just basic body mechanics: what are you doing when you’re not working out? What’s your posture like? When we’re sitting in front of the computer for hours on end, or standing in line at the grocery store, having good posture keeps our spine healthy, and also reduces the stress on our muscles, ligaments, and joints, which will help limit soreness.