Written by Nic Bartolotta
Ever felt a deep, satisfying ache after a particularly challenging workout? That post-exercise muscle soreness is something that every fitness enthusiast has experienced at some point. Some people even wear it like a badge of honor, believing that the more pain they feel, the better their workout was.
But is this really the case? Are sore muscles actually 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 progressively build structural strength and metabolic adaptations. Because of this, connective tissues become stronger, 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, were poorly fueled, or poorly recovered 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. And muscle soreness does tell you that you have incurred some degree of muscle damage, which we know is important for muscle growth. But, 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 people 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 also true: soreness doesn’t necessarily mean that a workout was 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, which is a by-product of anaerobic energy production. But we now know that post-exercise muscle soreness is a result of 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 the healing process. Inflammation is a normal response to injury and is 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 actually referring to DOMS. Also called “muscle fever,” DOMS can affect anyone at any level of fitness. In fact, 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 you workout and can last up to five days. Just about any exercise can cause DOMS, including strength training, sports, downhill walking, and jogging. But 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 that 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 controlled, deliberate, eccentric phase of the exercise. Other examples of eccentric exercises include:
- Lowering portion of a deadlift
- Lowering portion of a push-up
- Lowering portion of a squat
- Downhill walking
How to Treat Sore Muscles
Sore muscles can be a good sign of enhanced recovery and endurance to come, but they can also slow you down. The good news is that with the right support and active rehabilitation, you can get back on your feet in no time, training harder and better.
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.
Stay moderately active - Rest is important, but it doesn’t mean you should completely disengage the affected muscles. The goal here is to keep your muscles moving while minimizing stress on those that need 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 in your recovery.
Proper nutrition - Nutrition plays a crucial role in your recovery from muscle damage. Nutrients, such as protein and carbohydrates can help repair the damage and reduce inflammation, allowing your muscles to recover and rebuild more quickly.
Use cold - Cold therapy can help reduce inflammation and pain. Apply ice packs to the affected area for no longer than 15 minutes. Feeling more ambitious? A 15-minute full-body cold water immersion might do the trick, too.
Warm up - Preparing your body for a workout session is one of the best ways to prevent 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.
Cool down - A proper cool 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 cools down your body temperature. It’ll also give your muscles enough time to return to their normal length.
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.
- 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 full capacity and helps reduce injuries. Post-workout, foam rolling with a muscle roller stick has been found to promote recovery and counteract DOMS. For best results, use a Rolflex Pro for two to three minutes, working on the day’s target muscle group. Other tools like massage guns & massage sticks can also be effective in certain cases.
Benefits of Feeling Sore After Exercise
While not immediately visible, there are many benefits of muscle soreness 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 a good thing 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 period of time. This progressive overload allows you to continue challenging your muscles and promoting growth.
Enhanced Muscle Endurance
Feeling sore after endurance training means your muscles are adapting to the demands of your workout. Over time, this can improve your overall endurance. Challenge yourself in new ways by incorporating interval training or hill workouts into your routine.
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 session. It’s self-limiting, which means it should go away on its own without any treatment, though 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 serious 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 can actually promote recovery as long as you don’t overexert yourself. Listen to your body and adjust your activity levels accordingly. If you feel too sore to lift your coffee mug or tie your shoelaces, then you should take a break. 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 tough to recognize normal post-workout soreness from a more serious inflammatory condition or acute muscle injury. Understanding the differences in symptoms is key to preventing long-term damage.
One way to differentiate DOMS from an injury is to look at the quality, frequency, and location of your symptoms. 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 serious injury is sharp, sudden, and constant. It typically happens only in one part of your body, like your right shoulder, for instance. Unlike DOMS, an actual injury will not go away on its own 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
- 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 that 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.