Sore Muscles After Workouts: What Helps and What Doesn’t

What helps with muscle soreness and fatigue

What you’ll learn here

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Sore muscles after workouts are never ever pleasant, especially in the days that follow.

“This is going to hurt tomorrow,” must be something you’ve said to yourself after a particularly grueling workout or upon returning to the gym after a long break. 

And hurt it does. 

You might even struggle to get out of bed because of how sore you are – everywhere. Pretty brutal. 

Short of hunkering down and bearing with the dull ache, hoping for it to pass, is there any science-based technique that can relieve the pain and speed up the recovery process? 

What helps with recovering from sore muscles? Foam rollers? Ice baths? What about massages?

Let’s see what research has to say about every popular muscle recovery method – from icing to compression tights. 

Why do sore muscles happen after a workout?

Just so you know, the technical term for post-exercise soreness is something called DOMS, or delayed-onset muscle soreness. 

DOMS usually peaks 48 to 72 hours after a workout session (1, 2, 3).

The reason you suffer from DOMS is related to what’s happening inside your muscles when you workout.

You generate microscopic tears in the muscle fibers themselves.

This might sound scary to you, but it’s actually a good thing! Your muscles can only get stronger and bigger after being broken down first. 

It’s only through the rebuilding and repairing processes after the workout that your muscles will adapt and grow – able to take on more load (heavier weights or higher intensities) in the future (4). 

Summary

  • Muscle soreness after a workout is also known as delayed-onset muscle soreness or DOMS.
  • DOMS occurs because working out creates microscopic tears in the muscles, which signals your body to rebuild and repair the tissues to become bigger and stronger.

What increases the likelihood of DOMS?

As you may have realized, you don’t experience DOMS every single time you go out running or to the gym. So – are there any factors that can increase your likelihood of hobbling through your day-to-day life?

Of course, there are. 

Several types of activities can increase the chances of you getting sore muscles.

As you know, muscle damage is indicative of your soreness. 

And so, by extension, anything that causes more tearing and muscle fiber damage are going to up the soreness level. 

In particular: 

Any workout that’s new to you 

When you’re suddenly using muscles in new ways or engaging smaller muscles that your typical workout programming rarely trains, you stress the muscles way more than they’re accustomed to or prepared for. 

And that causes more damage.  

Something that’s of higher intensity than you’re used to

In general, the more intense your workout sessions are, the more stress you’re putting on your muscle tissues. 

If you’re achieving a higher training volume with progressive overload, you’re likely training at a higher intensity than before. Here’s an article to learn more about managing your training volume by adjusting your reps and sets.

This then translates to an increased amount of microscopic tears, and therefore, soreness. 

Anything that involves lots of eccentric movements 

Strength exercises consist of two phases: the concentric (the lifting part) and the eccentric (the lowering part). 

In terms of a bicep curl, the concentric portion would be where you’re raising the dumbbell, and the eccentric is where you’re lowering it. 

Research shows that your muscles typically sustain more considerable damage during the eccentric, in comparison to the concentric contractions (5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). 

Summary

You’re more likely to experience DOMS after a new workout, a high-intensity session, and when you performed loads of eccentric movements.

Do sore muscles mean muscle growth?

That said, don’t think that the amount of muscle soreness you experience after working out equates to the growth (hypertrophy) you’ll see. 

See, some muscles – like the shoulders – don’t experience muscle soreness to the same degree as other muscle groups, like the biceps or the legs (11). 

Given that these muscles are still capable of experiencing growth, we can see that soreness is not necessary for hypertrophy.

You must also be familiar with experiencing sore muscles from running long distances. 

But think about it: when have you seen long-distance runners with massive quads, hamstrings, and calves (12)?

Once again, we can see that muscle soreness is not really suggestive of hypertrophy. 

What’s the take away from this section? 

Well, just know that while muscle damage (which causes soreness) does have a role in contributing to muscle growth, hypertrophy can still occur in the absence of muscle damage. 

The fact that you’re sore doesn’t mean that your muscles are growing (13, 14).

Summary

Just because you’re sore, doesn’t mean that your muscles are growing.

Should I workout with sore muscles?

Yes, you can still workout with sore muscles. 

Just not the same muscle groups that are sore. 

Let’s say you did a ton of hip thrusts (because who doesn’t want to get a bigger butt?) yesterday, and you’re now incredibly sore – try to avoid exercises that involve the glutes if you’re heading to the gym today. 

Train your arms, chest, or even abs if you’re feeling restless. So many options are available!

Here’s when you shouldn’t do it

That said, there are a few situations where the answer is a hard and fast no – even if you’re not planning to train those sore muscle groups:

  • Getting out of bed reduces you to a puddle of tears – We all know that feeling. If you struggle to swing your legs down from the bed in the morning, or it’s challenging to sit down or stand up the next day, you have a clear answer. Give your body more time to rest.
  • Your legs are trembling as you take the stairs – If it’s excessively challenging to walk up the stairs, you know your body is screaming for more recovery-time. 
  • You need a pain reliever to help you ‘push through the pain’ – Never mask muscle pain by popping ibuprofen before working out, just to help you grin and bear it. If you need to take a painkiller to get through your leg presses, you (obviously) haven’t rested enough yet.
  • You’re still feeling it 5 days later – If you’ve given it 3 to 4 days and are still feeling as sore as you did on the second day, you should probably see a doctor just to make sure it isn’t something more severe like an actual tear instead of a microscopic one, for example.
  • If your urine is dark-colored and your muscles are swollen – See your doctor immediately. This could be a sign of rhabdomyolysis, a severe syndrome resulting from direct or indirect muscle injury. The death of muscle fibers and subsequent release of their contents into the bloodstream can lead to severe complications like kidney failure (15, 16, 17)!

Training sore muscles can hinder long-term progress

But why can’t you train the sore muscle group? 

Avoid training your sore muscles as this slows your recovery and reduces the amount of load your muscles can handle.

While you may be tempted to power through (#nopainnogain, right?), you could be sacrificing long-term progress. 

Research shows that training a muscle while it’s still sore can reduce the activation of the desired area, reduce its force capacity by up to 50%, and affect the recovery process negatively (18, 19, 20). 

As you can imagine, this substantially reduces the load your muscles can handle – which then translates to a less effective workout. And you don’t want that now, do you?

Summary

  • You can workout when you’re still sore – provided you’re not training the sore muscle groups.
  • That said, you should judge for yourself as to whether you’re capable of working out at all.
  • Training the sore muscle groups can hinder your long-term progression.

What helps with sore muscles recovery?

While the best, sure-fire remedy for DOMS is time (DOMS generally lasts about 2 to 3 days after the soreness peaks), there are a few popular methods we’ve all come to rely on to help ease the pain a bit.

But do they work? Let’s see. 

Light stretching 

Does it help sore muscles recovery: Maybe.

Now, the keyword is light – you don’t want to overstretch and end up tearing your muscles. 

Stretching can be an excellent way for you to increase your range of motion and release tension when you’re sore (21). 

And while this doesn’t technically speed up the actual healing process, it can make you feel better. 

Appropriate amounts of stretching can be helpful in dealing with sore muscles.

That said, if it’s too painful even to entertain the thought of stretching, forget it. Stretching is supposed to provide you with some temporary relief, not cause you more pain. 

Also, the next time you want to prevent DOMS, though, you might want to consider incorporating dynamic stretching – active movements where your joints and muscles go through a full range of motion – into your warm-up routine (22). 

It can help increase blood flow and warm up muscles, which is crucial to athletic performance. 

Just remember not to do static stretching before your workout. 

Static stretching, where you hold a stretch without movement, is counterproductive to performance when done immediately before a training session (23, 24, 25). 

Summary

  • Light stretching can provide some relief for your tight muscles – though it doesn’t directly help with the healing process.
  • Consider including dynamic stretching as part of your warm-up routine the next time you workout.

Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate

Does it help sore muscles recovery: Maybe.

There have been several studies that have shown a correlation between dehydration and increased levels of DOMS (26). 

Researchers have, therefore, postulated that if dehydration increases soreness, then increased hydration can minimize it.

It’s thought that water helps speed up the process of your kidney and liver filtering out waste products generated from the breakdown of muscle tissues – helping with recovery (27).

While more research is needed, honestly, there’s no harm in staying hydrated now, is there?

Summary

Staying hydrated before, during, and after your workout session can help minimize DOMS.

Massage

Does it help sore muscles recovery: Maybe.

Massages are meant to work by inducing myofascial release, which is when the layer of tissue that sits on the outside of your muscle loosens up. 

In some cases, DOMS can be brought on by tightened fascia, and kneading (massaging) is meant to relax that grip.

Massage could help with muscle soreness by relaxing the tightened fascia.

This is thought to improve the range of motion around a joint and reduce soreness. But is there any evidence backing that up?

In the past, the research used to suggest a bag of mixed answers (28, 29, 30, 31, 32). 

But in light of recent evidence (a 2020 meta-analysis), on the whole, massages probably do help relieve muscle soreness (33).

That said, the main problem, realistically-speaking, is the affordability of going for a massage every time you experience DOMS. 

Even if massage is a beneficial recovery mechanism, most individuals don’t have the money or time to do it frequently. 

Summary

While massage can provide beneficial results, it’s unlikely that anyone can sustainably use it as a recovery mechanism over the long-term (expensive and time-consuming).

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Foam rolling

Does it help sore muscles recovery: Maybe.

Think of foam rolling as a form of massage – only, it’s self-induced. 

Similar to a massage, foam rolling is meant to induce myofascial release, which can then reduce tightness and, therefore, DOMS. 

Unfortunately, current research indicates that the effects of foam rolling on recovery are minor and negligible (34). 

Wait – before you throw out your foam roller, hear me out.

While further research is needed, experts believe that foam rolling causes the stimulation of embedded nerve receptors in your muscles. I.e. it’s not about myofascial release (structural changes).

And it is this neurological stimulation that leads to the perceived ‘releasing’ effect. 

So while it doesn’t help with the healing process itself, it can make you feel better.

Keep in mind that foam rolling shouldn’t hurt. Muscle soreness will undoubtedly feel more pronounced when pressure is applied, but foam rolling shouldn’t hurt at all.

If you’re experiencing pain when foam rolling, a few things could be going on. 

You may be applying too much pressure (likely), actually causing damage (relatively unlikely), have some existing severe muscle injury (unlikely, but worth checking out), or are rolling tissues you shouldn’t be (highly likely). 

One place you shouldn’t be rolling is your IT band (iliotibial band) – the big, long band of connective tissue that runs up the side of the thigh from the knee to hip. 

Why? Because it’s a waste of time, and you’re not getting to the root of the problem (35).

If you’re having IT band issues, it’s probably due to your hip. 

Try foam rolling at the hip instead, and include some hip exercises, such as the Bulgarian split squats, into your routine to stabilize it, so you take the pressure off your IT band.

Summary

  • The results of foam rolling on DOMS is negligible.
  • Nonetheless, foam rolling can help reduce the painful sensations you experience.
  • When done correctly, foam rolling shouldn’t hurt. Consult a physiotherapist if unsure.

Ice bath

Does it help sore muscles recovery: Maybe.

Taking an ice-cold bath may sound painful, but it’s also one of the most popular (not to mention simple) muscle recovery methods. 

As implied by its name, an ice bath is where you sit in chilly water – ideally up to your chest – for 10 to 15 minutes.

Ice baths may help with muscle soreness by exposing your muscles to cold temperatures to reduce swelling and pain.

The idea is that prolonged exposure to cold temperatures helps reduce the swelling and pain that accompanies muscle damage. 

However, recent research suggests that a reduction in the swelling might hinder the recovery process. 

That’s because swelling and inflammation are part of the signal that tells your body it needs to repair that area (36). When you take out that signal, you’re removing an essential component of muscle recovery.

As to whether ice baths work to reduce pain, studies offer mixed conclusions. 

On the whole, they do seem to provide a reduction in associated pain, but the amount it does so might not be any better than the placebo effect (37). 

Does this then mean that you should just save the ice for chilling your drinks? Well, not yet! 

Ice baths can be useful when you need the pain relief, and you don’t need your muscles to recover quickly (i.e. you’re not planning to train extremely hard again in just a few days) (38).

Just be mindful that it’s never a good idea to soak in cold water too close to an upcoming intense training session or competition.

Reduced muscle temperatures impact performance; warmer muscles always perform better – which is why you should always warm-up before working out.

Summary

  • An ice bath can help bring down inflammation and swelling, but this may inhibit the muscle’s natural recovery process.
  • Even though ice baths are useful for reducing pain levels, they don’t seem to be more effective than placebos.

Cryotherapy

Does it help sore muscles recovery: Maybe.

On a related note, let’s talk about whole body cryotherapy, which is essentially a high-tech ice bath. 

For those unaware, whole body cryotherapy is where you enter a chamber with sub-zero temperatures for no longer than a few minutes.

Despite its hefty price tag, research shows that a standard ice bath better reduces blood flow and tissue temperature than cryotherapy (39). 

As to whether it works for relieving DOMS, well, it’s subject to all the same conflicting results as the ice bath method.

So, if you’re going to lower your body temperature, just do it with your bathtub and a bag of ice. Cheaper and better. 

Summary

If you’re planning to speed up your recovery by lowering your body temperature, go for the traditional ice bath – cryotherapy isn’t any more beneficial despite its hefty price tag.

Compression garments

Does it help sore muscles recovery: Not really.

Interestingly, compression garments have traditionally been used for medical purposes to help people with circulatory conditions. 

When worn, they can help increase blood flow through the veins and reduce swelling. 

For athletes, the idea is that the increased blood flow also increases the clearance of waste products released from damaged muscles – which can then boost recovery rates. 

But the data to back up these claims is weak (40, 41). 

At best, some studies show it to be as effective as other methods we’ve covered so far – and at worst, research shows them exerting no benefit at all. Harsh. 

Also, given that many of the studies don’t quantify the compression forces of the garments, you can never be sure if what you’re wearing is truly doing anything – is it too tight or too loose? 

You’ll never know. You’ll most likely be better off trying other recovery methods.

Summary

Don’t rely on compression garments to relieve DOMS – they’re unlikely to work.

Pain-relieving drugs

Does it help sore muscles recovery: Hell no.

While medications like ibuprofen and aspirin are indeed effective at minimizing pain, they come at a cost.

Many studies show that they can significantly inhibit the natural recovery process of muscles (42). 

So if you can, stay strong and put up with the discomfort. 

Of course, you’re the best judge of this. If the discomfort is affecting your daily activities or is simply too much to bear, it’s probably not worth passing up the painkillers. 

Just don’t make it a habit or worse, use it to push through another training day!

Regardless, if you come to need pain relief after every workout, it’s perhaps time to reevaluate your programming because you’re most probably overtraining. 

Now is not the time to question your motivation to workout – if it hurts this bad, you’re better off resting. If you end up hurting yourself, wouldn’t you be out for way longer?

Remember: muscle soreness is not indicative of whether you’ve had a ‘good’ workout.

Summary

Avoid using pain-relieving drugs to get rid of DOMS – unless you’re in a great deal of discomfort, as they can inhibit the recovery process.

Active recovery

Does it help sore muscles recovery:Yes. 

Just because you’re struggling to get out of bed, doesn’t mean that you should just lay there for the rest of the day! 

Physical activity helps improve blood flow throughout the body. And we know that blood carries nutrients – in particular, amino acids – and oxygen to muscle tissues, which can then speed up the process (43, 44, 45). 

The faster your muscles repair and rebuild, the quicker you’ll feel better. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should get back to deadlifting your body weight in the gym just to get that blood flow going. 

Practice active recovery by performing gentle activities that improve your blood flow and speed up your recovery.

We’re talking about gentle activity, like going for a walk, a yoga class, or hopping onto the elliptical at the gym. 

And if you’re a lifting-addict, that means you should only use 25% to 50% of the weight you’d usually use. Or, if you can, stick to bodyweight exercises. 

Summary

Active recovery can help improve blood flow around the body, leading to better recovery rates.

Get enough protein

Does it help sore muscles recovery: Yes.

As you probably already know by now, amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and therefore, muscle. 

While you should be already eating enough protein all the time to help with muscle-building and satiety purposes, it can still be helpful to double-check that your macros (macronutrient ratio) include enough protein.

That’s because strength training can blunt your appetite, making it difficult for you to hit your daily protein requirement (46, 47). 

Especially since protein is very filling compared to carbohydrates or fats.

Summary

Make sure you eat enough protein, so your body gets all the building blocks it needs to repair and rebuild your muscles.

Sleep

Does it help sore muscles recovery: Yes.

Sleep – the one recovery method most people forget about. And if you’re like most individuals, you likely don’t get enough of it daily. 

To understand why this is such a big deal, you first need to know of something called the human growth hormone (HGH) – one of the primary, naturally-occurring compounds in the body that allows muscles to recover and grow (48). 

Among other functions, your body needs HGH to use the amino acids broken down from the protein you consume. 

As it happens, the time where your levels of HGH peak is – yep, you guessed it – during sleep (49, 50). 

Your muscles can’t repair themselves optimally when you’re short on sleep. So, if you want to get rid of DOMS as quickly as possible, aim for at least 8 hours of sleep a day. 

Here’s a super useful article on how you can sleep better.

Summary

Adequate, quality sleep allows your body to replenish its levels of the human growth hormone, which plays a critical role in the muscles’ recovery process. 

Stick with the good old methods for sore muscles

Ultimately, remember that time will heal all soreness – as long as it’s not something more concerning, of course. 

When it comes to getting rid of DOMS, you want to make sure that you’ve exhausted the tried-and-tested methods (i.e. sleep, active recovery, protein consumption) before moving on to others. 

The truth is that a placebo effect could also be at play, so if you want to supplement with other techniques, by all means. 

As long as you feel like it helps relieve the soreness (and is safe), what’s the harm?

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