Are sore muscles a sign of muscle growth?

Are sore muscles a sign of muscle growth?

Written by Nic Bartolotta

Nic Bartolotta is a physical therapist and holistic health practitioner. He holds a Master of Physical Therapy (MPT) degree from Cal State University - Long Beach and has worked with hundreds of professional athletes from the MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL. Nic is known for his expertise in injury prevention, rehabilitation, and sports performance enhancement. He specializes in myofascial release techniques to address soft tissue restrictions. He is also the Chief Clinical Officer of Rolflex.


Have you ever felt a deep, satisfying ache after a particularly challenging workout? That post-exercise muscle soreness is something every fitness enthusiast has experienced at some point. Some people even wear it as a badge of honor, believing that the more pain they feel, the better their workout is. 

But is this the case? Are sore muscles a good sign after a hard workout? In this article, we'll delve into the science behind muscle soreness, the different types of soreness, how to differentiate it from pain, and, most importantly, how to manage it effectively.

Are sore muscles a good sign? 

Post-workout muscle soreness can be a sign of growth and progress. It means your body is rebuilding your muscles and adapting, especially after a new, challenging activity. When you exercise, your muscle fibers repeatedly contract and relax to produce force and movement. As a result, they sustain tiny, harmless injuries. Your body repairs these injuries by fusing muscle fibers to form new muscles. During this time, it's common to experience soreness & stiffness as your body tries to heal. 

The degree of your soreness can vary. It depends on the intensity of your workouts and your current fitness level. Starting a new workout routine can also leave you more sore than usual. But if you stay consistent with your training, follow a healthy diet, and get enough rest, you'll progressively increase your strength and recover faster after each training session. 

This is because muscle damage is an essential component of muscle growth. It allows your muscles to build structural strength and metabolic adaptations progressively. Because of this, connective tissues become more vital, muscle fibers become more efficient, and learn to coordinate with each other better.

So, yes, sore muscles can be a good sign of improvement. But sore muscles could also mean nothing at all about your progress. They could only mean that you may have used poor form, been poorly fueled, or not recovered properly from your last workout.

Does muscle soreness mean that your workout is working?

Yes and no. Post-workout soreness does mean that your workout was challenging enough. Muscle soreness does tell you that you have incurred some degree of muscle damage, which we know is vital for muscle growth. However, muscle soreness doesn't reflect the extent of muscle damage that results from your workout. On its own, soreness isn't a reliable indicator of the quality and effectiveness of your workouts.

Does being sore mean muscle growth?

Sore muscles are a good sign of muscle damage and may signal the start of the muscle-building process. But it's important to understand that people respond differently to the same workouts. Some may experience more soreness than others, and some may not be sore at all. That said, just because you're not sore doesn't mean you didn't have a good workout. The reverse is true: soreness doesn't necessarily mean a workout is effective. 

What causes sore muscles?

Sore muscles are an expected part of an intense fitness routine. It's how muscles grow, enabling you to produce more force. For many years, sore muscles were attributed to the accumulation of lactic acid, a by-product of anaerobic energy production. But we now know that post-exercise muscle soreness results from microscopic tears.

During exercise, the force you exert against an opposing force creates micro-tears along your muscle fibers. Your body responds to these injuries by sending inflammatory proteins to jumpstart healing. Inflammation is a normal response to injury, often accompanied by symptoms like swelling, soreness, and tenderness.

Different Types of Muscle Soreness

There are two different types of muscle soreness: acute muscle soreness (AMS) and delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

Acute muscle soreness (AMS)

AMS is the burning sensation you feel while working out or immediately after. It's associated with a lack of blood flow, electrolyte imbalances, and sudden build-up of metabolites in your muscles in response to exercise. AMS is typically short-lived and goes away when you stop exercising. 

Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS)

When we talk about muscle soreness in the context of muscle growth, we're referring to DOMS. Also called "muscle fever," DOMS can affect anyone at any level of fitness. It's a leading cause of a decline in physical performance and muscle strength in both athletes and non-athletes. 

DOMS usually starts 12 to 24 hours after your workout and can last up to five days. Any exercise can cause DOMS, including strength training, sports, downhill walking, and jogging. However, one exercise in particular, called eccentric exercise, is a well-known trigger. 

Eccentric exercise is any movement that causes your muscles to lengthen at the same time that they're contracted. In simpler terms, it's the force your muscles produce to resist a shortening motion. Picture this: you're doing a bicep curl and slowly lowering the dumbbell. This lowering motion is the exercise's controlled, deliberate, eccentric phase. Other examples of eccentric exercises include: 

  • Lowering the portion of a deadlift
  • Lowering the portion of a push-up
  • Lowering the portion of a squat
  • Downhill walking

How to Treat Sore Muscles

Sore muscles can be a good sign of enhanced recovery and endurance but can also slow you down. The good news is that with the proper support and active rehabilitation, you can get back on your feet quickly and train harder and better.

  1. Take it easy - Your muscles can only rebuild when you give them time to rest. Be mindful of which muscles are affected, and avoid lifting and eccentric exercises that target these muscles. Let's say your quads are sore after an intense leg day. Shift your focus to upper body exercises for at least 48 hours while your body recovers.
  2. Stay active—Rest is essential, but it doesn't mean you should completely disengage the affected muscles. The goal is to keep your muscles moving while minimizing stress on those needing a breather. For example, in place of resistance training, opt for low-impact exercises like swimming, yoga, and Pilates. Keeping your muscles engaged with low-impact activities can promote blood flow, reduce muscle soreness, and aid recovery.
  3. Proper nutrition plays a crucial role in recovering from muscle damage. Nutrients like protein and carbohydrates can help repair the damage and reduce inflammation, allowing your muscles to recover and rebuild quickly. 
  4. Use cold therapy — Cold therapy can help reduce inflammation and pain. Apply ice packs to the affected area for no longer than 15 minutes. If you're feeling more ambitious, a 15-minute full-body cold water immersion might do the trick, too. 
  5. Warm up - Preparing your body for a workout session is one of the best ways to protect yourself from DOMS. It increases blood flow to your muscles and helps reduce your chances of injury. Warm up with a light foam rolling session, dynamic stretching, and exercise-specific movements to stimulate blood flow and prepare your body for a full range of motion. 
  6. Cool down — Proper cooling down is equally important. Take five minutes to cool down with a gentle jog or a brisk walk. This gradually reduces your heart rate and body temperature. It'll also give your muscles enough time to return to their standard length. 
  7. Massage - Massage is one of the few therapies that can significantly reduce the symptoms associated with DOMS. Not only does a massage feel good, but it also aids muscle recovery by reducing inflammation and promoting blood flow. In a 2017 meta-analysis, people who received a massage after an intense workout reported significantly less soreness than those who didn't get a massage. 
  8. Use foam rollers - Foam rolling is a great way to simulate a massage. It's perfect for prepping your muscles for a workout and cooling down post-exercise. Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release, improving blood flow and releasing muscle tightness. This allows your muscles to perform at total capacity and helps reduce injuries. Post-workout, foam rolling with a muscle roller stick has been found to promote recovery and counteract DOMS. Use a Rolflex Pro for two to three minutes for best results, working on the day's target muscle group. 

    foam roller for arm and leg

    Benefits of Feeling Sore After Exercise

    While not immediately visible, muscle soreness has many benefits after exercise. Here are just a few:

    Improved Muscle Strength

    Muscle soreness is usually a sign of micro-tears in the muscle fibers. It's good because when these tears heal, your muscles become stronger and more resilient. Make the most of this benefit by gradually increasing the intensity of your exercises over a while. This progressive overload allows you to continue challenging your muscles and promoting growth.

    Enhanced Muscle Endurance

    Feeling sore after endurance training means your muscles adapt to your workout's demands. Over time, this can improve your overall endurance. Challenge yourself in new ways by incorporating interval training or hill workouts into your routine.

    Mental Benefits

    The benefits of feeling the burn after a workout go beyond the physical. One of the most significant benefits is an increased sense of motivation. When you push yourself despite sore muscles, you feel a sense of accomplishment and pride that can be incredibly motivating. This sense of accomplishment can encourage you to push harder and pursue new goals. 

    Frequently Asked Questions

    How long should muscle soreness last?

    DOMS typically lasts up to five days, peaking between 48 and 72 hours after a workout. It's self-limiting, which means it should go away on its own without any treatment. However, the duration can be reduced with proper preparation & recovery. If you're still experiencing soreness and pain after this time, it could be a sign of a more severe injury or inflammatory process. 

    Should I wait until my muscles aren't sore to work out again?

    It's best to stay active while you recover. Staying active promotes recovery as long as you don't overexert yourself. Listen to your body and adjust your activity levels accordingly. You should take a break if you feel too sore from lifting your coffee mug or tying your shoelaces. Pushing yourself too much too soon could easily lead to an overuse injury.

    When to seek medical advice?

    Whether you're a seasoned pro or a fitness newbie, it can be challenging to recognize normal post-workout soreness from a more serious inflammatory condition or acute muscle injury. Understanding the differences in symptoms is critical to preventing long-term damage.

    One way to differentiate DOMS from an injury is to look at your symptoms' quality, frequency, and location. With DOMS, you typically feel soreness on both sides of your body. The discomfort is deep, achy, and tender in quality and is made worse by movement. 

    A more severe injury is sharp, sudden, and constant. It typically happens only in one body part, like your right shoulder. Unlike DOMS, an actual injury will not go away independently and will need medical attention. 

    Other signs that you need to go to the doctor include:

    • Debilitating pain 
    • Swelling of a limb
    • Urine turns dark in color
    • Flank pain
    • Fever
    • Soreness or pain that lasts more than a week

    Do muscles burn fat?

    No, muscles don't burn fat, at least not directly. However, muscles are very metabolically active. This means the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn. 

    Just about anyone can experience muscle soreness. But every fitness journey is unique, and your progress isn't solely determined by how sore you feel. Consistency is crucial, and so is rest. Finding a balance between pushing yourself and allowing for proper rest and recovery can go a long way in keeping you right on track toward your goals. 

    Back to blog

    Leave a comment

    Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.