Experiencing soreness after a workout is most likely a familiar feeling to anyone who’s worked out before.
It’s inevitable that you’ll be sore when you first start working out, but that's not the only reason you may get sore. Soreness can also come from a very intense workout regardless of how long you’ve been training.
It all depends on the person and what their body is used to. Any type of exercise can result in muscle soreness for days if it goes above and beyond in intensity.
Dealing with this soreness can be distracting and uncomfortable. This is especially true when doing anything that uses those sore muscles over the next few days. You know ... like having to walk up and down the stairs after leg day. Nobody likes that feeling!
Yet to some, the mentality of “no pain no gain” indicates the need for sore muscles post-workout.
From this perspective, many believe muscle soreness is necessary to see results. Some even look at soreness as a sign of a successful workout.
I disagree that you must be sore for it to have been a great workout, although a great workout can certainly lead to soreness.
Yes, you can have one of them without the other ... but that depends on how consistent you are with your workouts, and for how long you’ve been consistent.
Whether you recover well or not also makes a huge difference in that equation.
Many fitness professionals still debate whether soreness is necessary to see optimal results. But, how to get rid of those sore muscles after a workout is still the million dollar question.
Lowering the level of muscle soreness after a workout could help more people stick to their goals ... this is crucial for helping people get healthy and seeing long-term results.
So, throughout this article, I’m going to answer these 3 questions:
1. What causes muscle soreness?
2. What helps sore muscles after a workout?
3. Should you work out with sore muscles?
But first, let’s cover the different types of muscle soreness to get a better idea of what we’re talking about...
Wait ... There Are Different Types of Muscle Soreness?
Yes, believe it or not, there are different types of muscle soreness. The discomfort and soreness that you feel during or after a workout can vary in both cause and form.
Generally, you can group these types of soreness into three different categories:
1. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (or DOMS)
2. Acute Muscle Soreness
3. Tendon or Joint Pain
Each type of soreness is a little different, and may need a different level of attention. Let’s dive deeper into their differences.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)
DOMS is a painful sensation in the muscle that usually takes place around 12 to 24 hours after a tough workout ... hence why it's "delayed." This is generally what people think about when they think of muscle soreness.
The good news is DOMS only lasts a few days while the muscles rebuild. Most of the time it will reach its highest level of discomfort around 24 to 72 hours after the workout itself.
Acute Muscle Soreness
This might seem like the same thing, but it's actually pretty different.
Acute muscle soreness is what you feel during your workout up until about 12 hours after. The cause can be a little different than DOMS too, but we'll get to that in a little bit.
It's also possible that acute muscle soreness can lead into DOMS, but not every time.
Pain in the Tendons and Joints
One other type of soreness that we need to consider is the pain that can occur in tendons and joints near the muscle. This type of pain has no time constraint, so it can occur during your workout and long after as well.
Common causes of joint pain include:
• High-impact exercise
• Excessive inflammation
• Injury to the soft tissue in the joint (tendons, ligaments, cartilage, etc.)
• Improper form during an exercise that puts stress on the tissues surrounding the joint
Joint pain is no fun, and can hinder your ability to exercise. If you feel a nagging pain in any of your joints, that could mean it’s time to slow down. This could indicate damage to some part of the joint, and taking time to rest it may be in order.
Ongoing pain may call for a visit to the doctor as well, just to be sure there isn’t an injury.
Causes of DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness)
DOMS is caused by a combination of two things...
1. It is felt as a reaction to the muscles in your body being damaged via tiny microscopic tears from your workout
2. There is additional damage from the resulting inflammation as the body tries to heal ... although the damage from this part is delayed
If you’re having trouble visualizing this, you're not alone. When I first learned about this, it was hard to wrap my head around it.
So, let's paint a picture to make it easier to visualize...
Our muscles are elastic, like rubber bands. They can lengthen and stretch, allowing us to move in a greater range of motion. The opposite is true too in that they can shorten, which is how our muscles move our bodies.
When we work out, the force of gravity from the weight is trying to pull our muscles down into a stretch. This is happening while we are trying to shorten the muscles to move the weight in the other direction.
Whichever force is greater, whether the weight or the muscle, determines if the weight goes up or down.
The eccentric portion of any exercise is when you're actively lengthening the muscle. This is generally the easier part of the exercise, and would be when you're lowering the weight.
You actually create a lot more micro tears in the muscle tissue during this eccentric phase. Research even shows this can lead to much more soreness as a result.
This may sound bad, but this damage is what tells the body to grow bigger and stronger ... so it definitely serves a purpose.
For example, picture yourself doing a bicep curl.
The weight in your hand is trying to pull your arm down, which lengthens the bicep. As you curl it up, you are shortening the muscle.
When the bicep shortens, it pulls the weight against gravity.
During the eccentric phase the weight is being lowered and your bicep is lengthening. It isn't relaxed though, as it should still be fighting to pull the weight up.
It just isn't producing enough force to overpower the weight ... on purpose.
This means it is still producing an opposing force with the intent to slowly control the weight down. That force to shorten the muscle while it is still lengthening is what does the most damage.
These opposing forces pull the same muscle fibers in opposite directions. This is what creates those tiny little microscopic tears in them.
Obviously, in order to lower the weight, your bicep will have to produce less force than the dumbbell. So, as the dumbbell overpowers your bicep, it creates more damage to the tissue.
In fact, it actually creates more damage than when your bicep overpowers the weight to lift it!
This increase in damage creates inflammation to kick-start the healing process. This could actually lead to the release of free radicals that cause even more damage.
It can also cause fluid to build up around the damage, leading to a little extra pressure in the area. The pressure causes a feeling of tightness and general discomfort as your body is trying to heal.
There is a real purpose for the pain and stiffness though. Your body increases those sensations to make you not want to move it ... so it can heal.
Just think about it this way...
If you were to take a rubber band and cut it several times in random places, what would happen if you stretch it again? It is much more likely to rip all the way through, and the same can go for your muscles.
Your body doesn’t want that, so it’s attempting to minimize that possibility. By causing the sensation of pain and discomfort you are less likely to move it or stretch it.
When people talk about sore muscles from a workout, they are usually referring to DOMS. This is because it can be more intense, and last longer than acute muscle soreness.
Causes of Acute Muscle Soreness
The cause of acute muscle soreness is not 100% understood, but there are some theories.
One of them is the burning sensation felt in the working muscles while exercising. I could give you a chemistry lesson on why this happens, but that’s not why you’re reading this, so I’ll keep it simple.
The burning sensation happens because a byproduct of exercise is acid. The longer and more intensely you workout, the more acid accumulates in the muscle.
More acid only makes the burning more intense, and this is why many people cut their sets short. It's not a comfortable sensation.
Although this burning sensation does clear fairly quickly once the exercise stops.
The second theory is just as likely ... but if it’s this one, you likely still feel the pain afterwards.
Some theorize that the pain is coming from the damaged muscle as a result of the exercise. This is just like delayed onset muscle soreness.
It just likely wouldn’t be as intense or last as long unless it leads directly into DOMS.
Personally, I believe acute muscle soreness could be from one, the other, or both. It just depends on the situation.
Check out these 3 scenarios, and you’ll see what I mean...
Scenario 1: You’re doing lunges non-stop for 2 straight minutes.
Your muscles are going to burn a lot during that set ... but if you work out on a regular basis, you probably won’t be too sore in a couple hours.
Here, I would argue that the burning/soreness during that set would come from the acid in the muscle tissue ... not from micro tears in the muscle.
If this were the case, theoretically you would feel that soreness after the workout was over too.
Scenario 2: You haven’t worked out in a while, but decide you’re going to run short sprints for 2 hours with long rest periods to get back in shape.
The short sprint likely wouldn’t be long enough to feel much of a burn. Later on during the day, however, you might start to feel the soreness and stiffness in your legs.
I would argue that the soreness here would come from micro tears in the muscle tissue. This is because the soreness is coming in after the workout is done.
If it were from the acid, then theoretically you would feel it more during the sprints themselves.
Scenario 3: You have decided to run a marathon, and you push yourself to get your best time.
You are absolutely going to feel the burning in your legs throughout. You’re also going to feel plenty of pain soon after the race is over.
I would argue that the pain overall is coming from a combination of both causes; the micro tears and the acidity. This is because the pain/burning happens during the workout, and sticks around afterward.
Between these 3 scenarios, all of them could still lead to DOMS, but not every time. It all depends on how well-trained you are for that specific bout of exercise, and how well you recover.
Is It Okay to Work Out With Sore Muscles?
If you are considering how to not be sore after a workout, the question of working out with sore muscles may come up.
Is working out while your muscles are experiencing DOMS the right call? The answer is not as straightforward as a simple "yes" or "no."
Let’s say you have completed a very intense leg workout ... and as a result, your legs are sore in the days that follow. They show all the classic signs of DOMS.
Should you put them back to work or let them take a few days off?
On the one hand, those muscles demand rest to properly take the time to rebuild.
Not only is this process natural to the body, but it also allows for the muscles to grow larger as they are rebuilt.
A workout that works your sore leg muscles could potentially disrupt this process. This could rob you of the chance to get the greatest potential gains from the rebuilding process.
And yet, it’s probably unrealistic to not use the muscles in your legs at all.
Your daily activity demands that you use not only your legs, but also the muscles in your arms, chest, and back ... even if it’s only to a slight degree.
What’s more, your sore leg muscles may actually benefit from some light exercise, like walking. Blood flow to the area can help bring in oxygen & nutrients to aid in repairing the muscle.
A lot of times, this can actually help relieve some of the soreness.
The answer then seems to lie in the process of going to the gym despite muscle soreness. In this situation, it would be best to focus your exercises on muscle groups that don't feel sore.
If your leg muscles are sore after a workout, then focus on working muscles in your arms or chest for example.
It’s for this reason that many gym goers will stagger working muscle groups in their training split. This allows them to continue working out daily while lowering the risk of injury at the same time.
It’s also worth noting that not every workout will result in sore muscles.
Workouts that don't focus on eccentric lifts can often avoid DOMS while still gaining strength. Though it is at the expense of limiting potential muscle growth since more micro tears can lead to that.
What Helps Prevent Sore Muscles After a Workout?
Many supposed remedies claim to answer this question, but the truth is ... you need a handful of things to maximize your recovery and alleviate soreness. I would consider these the most important factors for accelerating your recovery...
• Adequate sleep
• Proper hydration
• Getting enough protein and calories
• Taking a proper post-workout shake
Let's talk about each of them and how they can help...
Sleep 7-8 Hours a Night
There is perhaps no better solution for DOMS than good old-fashioned sleep. Not only is sleep a chance to rest the muscles, but studies have also shown a link between sleep and muscle growth.
The majority of muscle growth and repair happens when you’re asleep. One reason is because this is when important hormones are being released.
When your body is lacking sleep, your muscles miss out on the chance to maximize recovery. That lack of recovery can lead to more soreness.
Sleeping is also when your body has the highest amount of Human Growth Hormone (HGH). HGH is a key compound in helping your muscles to recover from your workouts.
Sleep is also when the majority of your testosterone gets produced. That obviously plays a vital role in muscle recovery as well.
So make sure you're getting enough sleep! It's vital for your recovery.
There are a ton of factors that play into sleep quality, the main ones being these...
• Room temperature
• Artificial light before bed (phone, tv, tablet, etc.)
• Caffeine intake
I recommend you cut off the artificial light a few hours before bedtime. On top of that, keeping your room between 60-67 degrees is optimal according to the sleep foundation.
As far as caffeine and stimulants go ... it's best to cut them out 6-8 hours before you plan on going to bed.
If you can optimize those factors ... you can thank me later when you're getting deep and restful sleep and better recovery!
Being dehydrated can contribute to muscle soreness. Not only that, but being hydrated comes with its own set of benefits.
Water is vital to the muscles because water makes up roughly 76% of our muscle tissue. So it only makes sense that if you want them to recover, you need to give them what they need to do so.
Water is also very important for nutrient delivery as well. Let's not forget that.
Most people just think about protein in recovery ... and it is extremely crucial, but water is obviously still very important.
Another aspect to hydration is also electrolyte balance. So make sure you’re taking your electrolytes daily as well.
Nutrition and Supplements
Your body requires protein as the muscles rebuild throughout the DOMS process.
Proteins are made of amino acids, which serve as the basic building blocks for ALL muscle tissue. Without amino acids, your muscles can't grow, rebuild, or even maintain their current levels.
Protein and water are not all that we need either. Your muscles are made mostly of those 2 things, but they also need to use energy constantly.
Your muscles actually store carbohydrates in the muscle tissue itself ... and it's stored in the form of glycogen.
So after a workout, you just used up a good amount, if not all, of that glycogen in certain areas. Your muscles have been damaged via micro tears in the fibers as well.
So, the best way to approach recovery is to provide the nutrients that address both needs. This is where I'd recommend post-workout supplements, like Phormula-1 and Ignition.
Phormula-1 is a rapid assimilation protein sourced from whey protein isolate. By that I just mean it is quickly digested, absorbed, and utilized.
It is designed to provide a faster spike in muscular amino acid levels and muscle protein synthesis ... and that's when compared to virtually every other known protein source!
Ignition, on the other hand, is a dexanhydrous glucose. This is a very simple, high glycemic (high glycemic = will create a quick spike in blood sugar and insulin) form of a carbohydrate. This makes it very easy for your body to process and convert it into glycogen (energy for the muscle).
The fact that it's high glycemic may set off some red flags for some of you. I get that, but as long as you don't have blood sugar issues, this can be very beneficial to the recovery process … and for DOMS.
You remember how the main causes of sore muscles in DOMS are micro tears in the muscle and inflammation?
Well, insulin actually has the ability to inhibit inflammation, and can reduce this excess damage. At the same time, insulin help shuttle carbs and amino acids into the muscle. This can help form glycogen and begin repairing the muscle tissue.
Using Phormula-1 + Ignition for your post-workout shake can help give your body the materials it needs to recover ... and recover quickly!
Outside of a high-quality post-workout shake, you still need to eat enough protein and calories.
For protein, that’ll be 1 gram of protein per pound of your goal body weight. For calories, that will depend on a few different factors, and everyone’s different.
Ultimately, the largest factor in reducing muscle soreness is time.
It can be tempting to try to speed up DOMS. No one likes the discomfort, but a lot of people get eager to work the muscle group again.
Remember though, DOMS means the muscle is rebuilding, growing, and becoming stronger than before.
So if you want optimal results, don’t compromise your muscle gains by cutting recovery time short.
Need Any Help?
Dealing with DOMS means taking time to rest, hydrate, and eat what you need to rebuild your muscles.
Here at 1st Phorm, we understand this. Not only do we offer high-quality post-workout options ... but we also have amazing supplements to use as protein snacks on the go.
Still, one major key to success is also the hardest part for many people, and that’s nutrition. If you need help with your nutrition and reaching your goals, you should check out the 1st Phorm App.
The 1st Phorm App gives you the tools, coaching, and education you need to succeed ... and that's with any health or fitness goal you may have!
Of course, if you have any questions, you are more than welcome to reach out to us anytime! We have a full staff of NASM Certified Personal Trainers and Certified Nutrition Coaches who are always happy to help. Just give us a call at 1-800-409-9732 or send us an email at CustomerService@1stphorm.com. We'll get you on track to earning and maintaining the results you've been looking for!
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