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Sore Muscles from Working Out: 12 Recovery Methods Compared

Learn how to recover from sore muscles effectively.

We all know what you get in the days that follow a heavy workout: sore muscles. It’s a feeling that’s all too familiar – especially if you’re one who is super enthusiastic about pushing PRs every other week.  

Every movement you make – from sitting down to brushing your teeth – is absolutely arduous and painful. And let’s not forget, it all seems to happen in slow motion. 

While you may not mind having some sore muscles every now and then, I’m sure you’re interested in how you could speed up the recovery and get past the soreness as quickly as possible. 

Most importantly, you want to know which recovery methods actually work – and which ones don’t. That’s why I’ve put together 12 popular approaches to recovery right here and analyzed each one of them.

Before starting, you might want to learn more about what causes workout soreness and whether you should still workout when sore. Hint: it’s delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). 

Light stretching 

Should you do this? Maybe.

Think back to the last time you were struggling with a sore muscle. 

Did it feel unbearably tight? Did it hurt every time you attempted to move it through its usual range of motion?

It must have. So, when every movement comes with a wince, here’s what you could do to find relief from sore muscles: light stretching. 

While stretching doesn’t actually help heal the micro-tears in your muscles or speed up the healing process, it is still a great way to release tightness and increase your range of motion (1). This can then make you feel better. 

Although, just be aware that there’s a reason why the keyword here is ‘light’. 

Doing some light stretching can be good for releasing tension – but overstretching the muscle when it feels incredibly tight can cause the muscle to come back even tighter because the body is trying to resist it. 

It’s somewhat similar to growing up under strict parents. The stricter they are, the more rebellious children tend to become. 

So, if the thought of stretching is too painful even to entertain, drop the idea. Stretching is supposed to provide you with temporary relief from sore muscles. Not cause you more pain. 

By the way: consider doing some dynamic stretching before starting your workout. 

By increasing blood flow and, in turn, warming up muscles, dynamic stretching can help prevent DOMS in the first place (2). 

Excellent dynamic stretching exercises to consider include:

  • Upper body: Arm swings, spinal rotations, arm circles
  • Lower body: Lunge with a twist, hip circles, leg pendulum 

Also consider adding ‘warm-up sets’ that’ll have you working through a particular lift (e.g. the deadlift) with a focus on your range of motion. 

Summary

Although it doesn’t directly help with the healing process, light stretching can provide some relief for your sore muscles. 

Active recovery 

Active recovery is one of the best ways to recover from your sore muscles.

Should you do this? Yes. 

As it stands, you can still workout with sore muscles. 

Although, there’s a caveat: just not with the same muscle group that’s still sore. So … don’t use DOMS as an excuse to just lay around the house! 

Getting some physical activity in – as painful as that might sound – increases circulation, improving blood flow throughout the body. 

Meaning? Your sore muscles will receive the magical ‘ingredients’ they need for repair and recovery (e.g. amino acids, oxygen) at a quicker rate – giving your healing process a boost (4, 5). 

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

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should get back to deadlifting 100 kg (the exact weight that got your hamstring muscle so sore in the first place) just to get that blood flowing. 

Keyword: gentle. For example, going for a walk, turning up for a yoga class, or even hopping onto the elliptical at the gym. 

But wait. What if you’re a strength training addict? 

No worries; when it comes to what to do for your sore muscle, light strength training is always one of the few recommended recovery methods. Just be sure to use a much lighter load (25% to 50%) than usual. Or, if you prefer, simply stick with using resistance bands or doing bodyweight exercises.. 

Summary

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

Hydration 

Should you do this? Yes.

The less hydrated you are, the more sore your muscles will get. 

Or, at the very least, that’s what a brief body of research suggests (6). In response, scientists hypothesized that if dehydration increases soreness, then increased hydration levels can minimize it. Admittedly, the reasoning is a little iffy here. 

But the leading theory driving this hypothesis is that water plays a crucial role in helping your body (i.e. liver, kidneys) filter out the waste products and toxins generated by muscle tissue breakdown. 

The more water you drink, the quicker your body clears these waste products. And the faster you can recover from sore muscles (7). 

More research is definitely needed on this front. But one can hardly argue against drinking more water. After all, staying adequately hydrated is crucial for optimal brain function, exercise performance, and even bowel movement, amongst others. 

So, you should now know what to do for pain relief from your sore muscle: stay hydrated! 

But wait. How would you know if you’re getting in sufficient fluids throughout the day? Well, a quick way to tell would be by taking a peek inside the toilet after you pee. If your urine is:

  • Light yellow (or lighter): You’re probably getting enough fluids
  • Dark or smells kind of funky: You probably need more water

Summary

Staying hydrated before, during, and after your workout session can help provide relief from sore muscles. 

Massage

Massage is a great option for recovering from sore muscles.

Should you do this? Yes.

The upside to dealing with a sore muscle group from working out? 

You now have a reason to book yourself a massage session. Massages help sore muscles recover in pretty much the same way as active recovery does: increasing blood flow. 

Studies suggest that getting a massage immediately after training helps stimulate blood and lymph circulation, bringing oxygenated, nutrient-rich blood to healing muscles. Yes, if you’re sharp-eyed, you might have caught something: immediately after (8). 

Many of these studies have the participants go for a massage right after their training sessions. 

So, in a perfect world, you should take care to schedule an appointment you could go to right after leaving the gym. Although … for everyone’s sake, please do take a shower beforehand. You know, for hygiene reasons. 

It’s still unclear whether a massage the day after training would still have the same beneficial effect on recovery, however. 

But wait. What about massage guns (e.g. Hypervolt, Theragun)? 

Well … the truth is that, unlike hands-on therapy massage options, there has been little research on the efficacy and safety associated with the use of massage guns. Worse still, they’re super expensive. So, if you’re seeking relief from your sore muscles, you’d best stick to booking yourself a massage session.  

That said, even if you have the time and money required for massages as a form of recovery, you’d have to bear in mind that not everyone will experience the same benefits.

Every body and every sore muscle react differently to massage.

Take note of how you feel during the massage. If you feel excruciating pain, ask your masseuse to stop immediately; you might be further irritating the muscles – and lengthening the recovery process. 

Summary

If you have the time and money for a post-workout massage session, it is one of the best recovery methods you can use for sore muscles. 

Foam roll 

Should you do this? Maybe.

If you’ve ever tried to roll out a sore muscle, you’d know that foam rolling can deliver a ton of pain relief – even though, frustratingly, the process in and of itself hurts, too. 

Foam rolling involves a technique called self-myofascial release, which uses pressure and targeted massage to help release tension in your muscles (9). In some sense, it’s similar to what you’d get with a massage.

Muscle soreness will undoubtedly feel more pronounced when pressure is applied, but foam rolling shouldn’t leave you in tears. If you’re in tears by the end of your rolling session, you may be:

  • Applying excessive pressure: The ideal pressure to apply differs for every sore muscle group. Let your body tell you what it needs. In general, if you start to feel excruciating pain, you’ll want to pull back on the pressure. 
  • Suffering from a serious muscle injury: That sore muscle you’re trying to roll out? It might be a sign of a muscle tear or break. So, if foam rolling is causing too much pain, you might want to check in with a doctor just to rule out anything more serious. 
  • Rolling out tissues you shouldn’t be: There are a few body parts you shouldn’t touch. Good examples include your:
  • IT band: Because it’s a thick band of ligament that cannot be expressed or loosened. If you have ‘tight IT bands’, the problem likely lies somewhere else. Some areas you could roll out instead include the glutes, quadriceps, and around the knee. 
  • Lower back, neck, and pubis region: There simply isn’t enough dense muscle tissue in those areas for rolling to be safe and effective. 

It’s also worth noting that foam rolling should be done with a clear plan in mind – not just wherever you’re feeling tight. Find a physio if needed.

Tightness or stiffness felt in some areas doesn’t always mean that’s where the problem lies. 

For example, tight hamstrings could be caused by an anterior pelvic tilt (10). Foam rolling your hamstrings in this case does nothing to rectify the underlying problem and provides short-term relief at best. 

Summary

Foam rolling can help relieve tension in a sore muscle – in turn, reducing the painful sensations you experience. 

Ice bath 

Rather than helping, ice baths might be detrimental for the healing of your sore muscles.

Should you do this? No.

Taking an ice bath may sound painful, but it’s also one of the most popular methods cited by athletes when asked what to do for sore muscles. 

As implied by its name, an ice bath is where you sit in really cold water – ideally up to your chest – for 10 to 15 minutes. The idea is that prolonged exposure to cold temperatures helps reduce the swelling and pain that accompanies muscle damage.

But here’s the thing. 

As it turns out, recent research suggests that a reduction in the swelling might actually hinder the recovery process – instead of speeding it up (11)! That’s because swelling and inflammation are part of the signal that tells your body it needs to repair that area (12, 13). 

So, without that signal, you’re essentially removing an essential component of muscle recovery.

Studies consistently show that regularly taking ice-cold baths after training can lead to poorer muscle growth and strength gains over the long term (14)! You’re slowing your recovery with regular ice baths. 

You wouldn’t want that, right?

That said, ice baths might be helpful for short-term pain relief (15). An example would be an athlete having to get back into the next round of a competition right away. Although it’s important to note that this pain relief happens at the cost of speed, strength, endurance and coordination. 

Of course, this is a scenario most of us are unlikely to find ourselves in so don’t worry about it.

If you’re trying to maximize strength and hypertrophy gains, give the ice baths a miss. It’s doing you more harm than good.

Summary

While an ice bath is capable of reducing inflammation and swelling, it inhibits your body’s natural recovery processes. This leads to poorer recovery and negatively impacts your long-term results.

Cryotherapy

Should you do this? No.

If ice-cold baths can provide pain relief for inflamed, sore muscles, then imagine what cryotherapy – which subjects you to temperatures as low as -100°C and −140°C – can do! The colder, the better … right?

Well. Disappointingly, no. 

Despite cryotherapy’s heftier price tag, research shows that your simple ice baths work better at reducing blood flow and tissue temperature (16)! 

Plus, there’s also the fact that similar to ice-cold baths, cryotherapy simply isn’t doing you any favors. By reducing swelling, you’re hindering your recovery process. And that negatively impacts both your strength and hypertrophy gains. 

Meaning? 

When it comes to what to do with sore muscles, at least one thing’s exceedingly clear. Stay away from cryotherapy. If you’re seeking short-term pain relief during competitions, just do it with your bathtub and a bag of ice. It’s not only more effective – but also friendlier on the wallet.   

For anything long-term and regular, give cryotherapy a miss – it’s just not helping with your sore muscles.

Summary

Cryotherapy doesn’t appear to be any more beneficial despite its hefty price tag. It works similarly to ice baths in using low temperatures to reduce inflammation. But since the icing approach is likely to slow your recovery, there’s no good reason to try it.

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Compression garments 

Should you do this? Yes.

The idea behind wearing compression garments is that they help improve blood flow (i.e. oxygen and amino acids delivery) to sore muscles – which speeds up the healing process. 

But do compression garments work for recovery? 

Well, surprisingly, they do! Take, for instance, this 2018 meta-analysis published in Frontiers in Physiology (17). Here, researchers compared the effects of 10 popular recovery methods, including:

  • Active recovery 
  • Stretching 
  • Massage 
  • Compression garments
  • Electrostimulation 
  • Water immersion
  • Contrast water therapy
  • Cryotherapy 
  • Hyperbaric therapy 

The findings? Massage had the most significant effect on DOMS, perceived fatigue, and various markers of muscle damage. But as mentioned earlier, not everyone has the time and money to go for a massage after every workout. 

This is where compression garments come in. 

According to the meta-analysis, even though compression garments didn’t alleviate sore muscles as effectively as massage, they were essentially tied with active recovery as the second most effective approach for reducing DOMS. 

But before you rush out to buy your first compression garment, remember that sizing is important to get the maximum benefit. 

Compression is meant to be tight – but, of course, not too restrictive such that you’re cutting off blood supply to your sore muscles. They should be worn around the area in which recovery is needed. 

In other words: putting on a compression legging when you’re struggling with sore muscles in your arms is pretty much pointless. 

Summary

Compression garments can be as effective as active recovery when it comes to recovering from sore muscles. Just ensure that you have them in a suitable size. 

Pain-relieving drugs

Avoid using pain-relieving drugs to deal with your muscle soreness.

Should you do this? No.

Search for ‘what to do with sore muscles’ on Google, and you’re bound to find articles suggesting painkillers to cope with the … um, well, pain. 

But you really shouldn’t. Because think about it: how do these painkillers relieve pain? 

They do so by suppressing the inflammation process. Which just so happens to be the first step your body takes toward healing. This, in turn, hampers your recovery. 

And potentially reduces the hypertrophy and strength gains you’d see over the long term. 

For instance, some researchers have found that both acetaminophen (often branded as Tylenol) and ibuprofen suppress the protein formation – i.e. muscle protein synthesis – that occurs in muscles after high-intensity exercise (18).  

There’s even some evidence showing that using ibuprofen regularly for sore muscles may damage cellular tissue. Not to mention, it prevents your body from taking full advantage of exercise (19). 

There are exceptions to steering clear of painkillers, of course. Painkillers can be helpful in situations where the pain is unbearable, like when you’re dealing with a muscle tear. 

But when it comes to workout-induced sore muscles? You’re generally better off just toughing it out. 

Summary

Avoid using pain-relieving drugs if you’re struggling with a sore muscle; they can inhibit the recovery process and long-term hypertrophy gains. 

Protein 

Should you do this? Yes.

When it comes to what to do for quicker relief from sore muscles, the need to consume adequate protein shouldn’t need further explanation. 

Protein – made up of amino acids – is a critical nutrient for building and maintaining muscle, so it plays a massive role in helping your muscles heal from a challenging workout. Of course, for optimal muscle-building and satiety purposes, you should already be eating enough protein all the time. 

If you’re interested, here’s an article on how much protein you need for your fitness goals.

It’s helpful to pay more attention to how much protein you’re actually getting through your diet. That’s because strength training can blunt your appetite – making it difficult for you to consume enough protein (20, 21). 

Struggling to get in enough protein? Here are a few ‘tricks’ you can make use of:

  • Swap rice with quinoa: A complete protein source, quinoa packs about 4.4 grams of protein per 100 grams – compared to 2.7 grams for rice (22, 23). 
  • Choose Greek yogurt: A 240-gram serving of Greek yogurt provides 17 to 20 grams of protein (24, 25). And best of all, it’s delicious, super easy to eat as a snack – or on the go.  
  • Go for leaner cuts of meat: Fat is highly-satiating. So, when you choose fattier cuts like ribeye, you might not be getting as much protein as you can if you’d gone for a leaner cut instead. To illustrate, here’s a comparison between:
  • Ribeye steak (fatty): 18 grams of protein and 274 calories per 100 grams (26)
  • Top sirloin steak (lean): 24 grams of protein and 225 calories per 112 grams (27)

Summary

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

BCAAs 

Should you do this? No.

If eating enough protein can help with sore muscles … then BCAAs (i.e. branched-chain amino acids) must be beneficial, too, right? 

Unfortunately, no.Supplementing with BCAAs alone isn’t going to help your sore muscles much. And research agrees. You can read more about why BCAAs don’t work here.

While it’s commonly believed that BCAAs supplementation can help your muscles feel less sore after exercise, various studies highlight that this effect is modest (at best) if you’re hitting your daily protein intake requirement. 

Besides, there’s also the cost to consider. BCAAs are expensive. 

Yet, despite their price point, they’re no better (and even arguably inferior) inducing muscle protein synthesis than complete protein sources. Which, you know, you could get through your diet and/or protein powder. 

Summary

BCAAs offer an incomplete source of protein. You’re much better off simply ensuring that you’re getting enough protein daily – it’s cheaper and more effective. 

Sleep 

Getting enough sleep and rest is key to your recovery from soreness.

Should you do this? Yes.

Ah, sleep. The one crucial thing to do for sore muscles most people forget about. 

And if you’re like most individuals, you likely don’t get enough of it daily. To understand why sleep is such a big deal for recovery, you first need to know something called the human growth hormone (HGH). 

HGH plays a key role in growth, body composition, cell repair, and metabolism (28). Or, in other words, it can help your body repair – and rebuild – muscles. 

Now, guess when your levels of HGH peak? Yep. During sleep. 

Imaginably, when you’re short on sleep, you’d be low on HGH levels – which means your body can’t repair your muscles as quickly as they should be. So, want to get rid of that pesky sore muscle ASAP? 

Get in at least 7-8 hours of sleep daily. 

If you’re looking for a better quality of rest every night, check out these tips on improving sleep

Summary

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

What to do for sore muscles: stick to the good old methods

Recovery methods for sore muscles categorized based on how likely they are to work.

Yes: active recovery, hydration, massage, compression, protein, sleep

Maybe: light stretching, foam roll

No: ice bath, cryotherapy, pain-relieving drugs, BCAAs

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

When it comes to what to do for sore muscles, you want to make sure that you’ve exhausted the tried-and-tested methods before moving on to others. 

That means you should start with the basics: sleep, protein, and active recovery . Once you have them down pat, then perhaps you can start considering other options such as compression garments and massage.

Although … the truth is that when it comes to recovery, a placebo effect could also be at play. If you feel that foam rolling helps, for instance, then go ahead. As long as you believe that it helps relieve the soreness (and is safe), there’s really no harm.

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