Should You Work Out When You’re Sore?

When you feel muscle soreness after a workout, it can seem like a sort of a badge of honor. It’s a kind of reminder that you’re following your plan, you made time for exercise, and you pushed yourself. But if you’re still feeling that same soreness a day or two later, should you still work out again?

It’s completely normal to have some soreness after a new, or more intense than normal, workout. You’ve asked your muscles to do something they haven’t done before. But take a moment to explore what type of pain you’re experiencing before deciding when to work out again.

Know that a “no pain, no gain” approach can have negative consequences if you consistently ignore the signs that your body needs to rest. Recovery is essential to becoming stronger.

This is because strength training causes micro-tears in the muscle fibers. During recovery, these tears knit back together stronger than before and generate more new muscle fibers in the process. A tired muscle that hasn’t been given enough time to recover is much more susceptible to a serious tear or tissue damage.

Does your muscle soreness develop a day or two after your workout? If so, it’s like what’s known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), and it’s a very common phenomenon. In many cases, you can continue to exercise while feeling DOMS – and movement may even help relieve it.

It’s very important to assess, however, if what you’re feeling is DOMS and not an injury. One good way to tell is if the pain is on both sides, or just one. For example, having one sore shoulder when you worked both could indicate a potential injury.

If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s a good idea to ease off a bit:

  • Getting out of bed is excruciating or sitting and standing are painful due to very sore legs following a workout. Instead of exercising, try some dynamic stretching and foam rolling.
  • You’re still feeling sore several days later. Remember, DOMS typically sets in around 24 to 48 hours after a workout. But if you’re still in pain three or four days later with no sign of improvement, do not work out until the pain is gone. You might also consider seeing a doctor to make sure it’s not something more serious.
  • Movement doesn’t help relieve the soreness. Sure, you may be stiff when you first get up, but moving around should help loosen things up. If not, take another recovery day or two.
  • You need a pain reliever to help you push through your next workout session. This is only masking muscle pain that’s signaling you haven’t given your muscles enough time to recover.

What to do instead

Here are some ideas for when muscle soreness sets in:

Do some low-intensity cardio. Walking, easy cycling, or swimming create blood flow to the muscles without excess strain. This helps with healing by bringing nutrients, oxygen and iron to muscle tissues.

Exercise different muscle groups. If your legs are very sore, try an upper body and core strength workout instead. In fact, you can even allow for a longer recovery by working different muscle groups on different days. For example, a three-day-per-week strength training program might look like this:

Monday: Chest, shoulders, triceps and abs

Tuesday: Low-intensity cardio

Wednesday: Back, biceps and abs

Thursday: Low-intensity cardio

Friday: Legs and abs

Saturday: Low-intensity cardio

Sunday: Rest day

You’ll notice every strength training day includes abdominals work. This is because the abdominals are the one muscle group that benefits from daily training. Two or three sets of two different exercises is all you need.

More ways to avoid muscle soreness

Besides the muscle group workout split method describe previously, there are several other effective ways to avoid DOMS while maintaining your regular exercise program.

Warm up well. Don’t skip the warm-up to save time! It’s essential to ensure your muscles, tendons and ligaments have plenty of blood flowing to them and that your joints are lubricated before moving into the demands of the workout. Read this to learn more about an effective warm-up.

Progress gradually. The body needs a challenge to create change, but too much too soon can set you back dramatically. [Read: General Adaptation Syndrome to understand this process.]

Stay hydrated. A lack of electrolytes can contribute to muscle soreness and cramping.

The Takeaway:

When you’re feeling sore post-workout, evaluate whether it’s DOMS or a potential injury. Consider the suggestions for relieving muscle soreness, and tips for avoiding it altogether. Most importantly, forego the “no pain, no gain” mindset in favor of gradual progress and giving your body plenty of time to recover – because that’s when all the gains happen.

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