Here we’re going to cover muscle soreness as a result of exercising, and questions like should you work out when your muscles are sore, how long muscle soreness lasts, and more.
First of all, Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) and just the exact name for sore muscles (aka muscle fever) that are a result of exercising, and that typically occur 24 hours after a workout. You will only feel the soreness when you stretch, contract, or put the muscle under pressure, but not when the muscle is at rest. There are other potential reasons for sore muscles when you’re not working out, but that’s not what we’re interested in here. This page is all about sore muscles from working out, so if that’s what you’re interested in, keep reading.
Are sore muscles good (or even necessary) for muscle growth?
The short answer is: Yes! If you’re not creating stress for the muscle, you’re not really forcing it to adapt to the stress. (And adapting to the stress means: growing!) You want to overload the muscle while it’s lengthening, which is what creates the stimulus for growth.
Now here’s an important distinction to make: If you want muscle growth (hypertrophy) you need sore muscles. But if you are training for STRENGTH, you don’t necessarily need to chase DOMS. You can become stronger without getting sore muscles, but growing your muscles bigger will be very hard to accomplish without putting the stresses onto your muscles that will cause them to grow.
What causes DOMS?
DOMS is typically caused by eccentric muscle training. What happens is that you put tension on a muscle while lengthening it—which causes micro-tears in the muscle fiber. That’s what spurs muscle growth and DOMS.
Here’s a great example of what causes DOMS, watch the video starting at 1:50 seconds in, where he takes a dumbbell to do some biceps curls.
You can see when he’s lifting the dumbbell up, there’s a lot of tension in his biceps, and it’s shortening (this is called concentric muscle contraction, meaning that the muscle is under tension while shortening it’s length). That’s typically NOT what causes DOMS.
What does cause DOMS is the lowering of the dumbbell, because then the muscle gets elongated under tension, which causes microtrauma in the muscle fiber. The muscle then rapidly adapts to prevent muscle damage, and if you do the same exercise at the same intensity again, it wouldn’t feel sore (or at least not as sore). That’s what triggers the muscle growth.
A third kind of muscle training is called isometric (static) training. These can cause DOMS, but not as much as concentric muscle training.
However, the underlying mechanisms involved in sore muscles are not yet fully understood. There are a couple of scientific theories, but I’m not going to cover them. If even the medical scientists can’t make up their mind on the issue, I’m not going to attempt it. It’s good enough for me to have working knowledge that allows me to benefit from it in my daily training routine. However, one thing that I’ll touch on is that DOMS has nothing to do with lactic acid—which was a common theory that has only recently been refuted. (If you really want to read up more on the science of sore muscles, Wikipedia is a good starting point.)
Interestingly enough though, if you get your blood tested while having really sore muscles, you’ll likely have some very unusual Creatine Phosphokinase (CPK) results. CPK is released when, among other things, muscles are damaged or die. CPK readings often correspond with high levels of reported DOMS.
How to trigger DOMS?
If you’re one of these people who never get sore muscles, that’s likely because you’re not focusing enough on the parts of an exercise where eccentric muscle contraction happens.
So in the case of training your biceps with a dumbbell, that would mean that you lower the dumbbell slower than you lift it up. In general, a 1-3 ratio is good: Lowering the dumbbell should take about three times as long as lifting it. That way, you’re creating the loaded elongation for your biceps that it needs to create the micro tears that will trigger DOMS.
DOMS without muscle growth?
Now I mentioned above that sore muscles are a prerequisite to muscle growth (hypertrophy). But to get the maximum growth effect out of your sore muscles, you need to make sure that you’re sleeping well, and eating right.
Working out with sore muscles?
Should you work out with sore muscles? First of all, it’s important to establish that it’s actually your muscles that are sore, and not your joints or tendons. If your joints or tendons are sore, DO NOT work out, but take a break and recover first. If your muscles are sore, you absolutely can keep working out, although you should adjust your workout depending upon the intensity of the muscle soreness.
In fact, many people even find that a mild workout can help relieve DOMS. If for example you’ve worked your legs really hard with weights, and a day or two later you experience DOMS, going on a fast-paced walk can help because it will increase the blood flow in the sore muscles. One possible explanation for this is that exercise increases pain thresholds and pain tolerance, an effect that is known as exercise-induced analgesia.
But don’t do a full-heavy workout on the same muscle group when it’s very sore—I’m talking so sore that you don’t even have full range of motion. In that case, do move your muscles, stretch them too, engage them in some light activity, but don’t put them under heavy load, don’t do heavy weight training that focuses on this muscle group. You can (and should) however train other muscle groups.
How to test whether it’s muscle or tendon/joint soreness
Here’s a simple test you can conduct to determine whether you’ve got sore muscles or sore joints/tendons:
- When did the soreness occur? If it occurs 24-48 hours after working out, it’s probably muscle soreness.
- Where is the soreness located exactly? If you press on your muscle, and it’s mainly located in the center of your muscle, then it’s like that the muscle is sore.
If however the pain is located towards the beginning or end of a muscle (the ends where the tendons attach a muscle to the bone), then it’s more likely a tendon-injury. A common cause for a tendon-injury is simply overuse, and the best way to treat it is to give it enough rest so your body has time to recover.
- Do you feel pain even if someone else moves the sore body part for you? Let’s say your arm is sore when you raise it. That could indicate either sore muscles or a joint/tendon issue. Now have someone else take your arm and lift it up the same way, but with you being completely passive, with your arm relaxed. If that causes no pain, then it’s likely just sore muscles. If that too causes the same pain as when you do it yourself, then it’s likely tendon/joint pain.
So to be very explicit about this, because I was asking myself that question as well: Should I work out with DOMS?
If what you’re looking for is maximum gains, then the answer is yes. There’s no adverse side-effect to it. “Continued light use of the sore muscle also has no adverse effect on recovery from soreness and does not exacerbate muscle damage.” [Source: Nosaka, Ken (2008). “Muscle Soreness and Damage and the Repeated-Bout Effect”. In Tiidus, Peter M. Skeletal muscle damage and repair. Human Kinetics. pp. 59–76. ISBN 978-0-7360-5867-4.]
How long does DOMS last?
If you have sore muscles from exercising, the soreness typically peaks within the first 72 hours of exercising, and then fades away. If it’s a weak case of DOMS, it might even fade after the first day. In some extreme cases, muscle soreness can last up to 10 days, but you gotta really push it to get there.
How to relief sore muscles?
If you are looking to sooth your sore muscles, anything that increases blood flow to the muscle will help:
- low-intensity activity
- hot baths
- good sleep habits
What about immersion in ice-water?
I’ve heard quite a lot about ice-baths, and how elite athletes are using them to recover faster. A 2011 study however found it to be ineffective. [Source: Sellwood, K. L.; Brukner, P.; Williams, D.; Nicol, A.; Hinman, R. (2007). “Ice‐water immersion and delayed‐onset muscle soreness: A randomised controlled trial”. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 41 (6): 392–397. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2006.033985. PMC 2465319 Freely accessible. PMID 17261562.] Another study from the same year however did find it to be effective [Source: Snyder, J. G.; Ambegaonkar, J. P.; Winchester, J. B.; McBride, J. M.; Andre, M. J.; Nelson, A. G. (2011). “Efficacy of Cold-Water Immersion in Treating Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness in Male Distance Runners”. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 43: 766. doi:10.1249/01.MSS.0000402128.66983.f7.]
Now obviously you could say that if it works for elite athletes, that’s probably a more convincing argument than what science says. But on the other hand, every scientifically proven remedy to relief sore muscles works because it increases blood flow to the affected muscle. An ice bath however does the opposite: it decreases blood flow to the muscle, which this “could slow down muscle protein synthesis, where the muscle rebuilds itself after injury or strain”, as this BBC article states.
How to prevent muscle soreness after working out?
Now there are a couple of things you can do to prevent muscle soreness, or at least make it milder.
Eat a snack about 20 minutes after your workout, and include proteins. A typical post-workout protein shake will do. Why protein? Because it assists your body with the repair and growth of new muscle tissue. All those muscle fibers you broke down with eccentric muscle trianing? Protein is helping to patch them up for the challenge.
Make sure to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated, as this will help your muscles react to the stresses much better.
Right after your workout, head to the sauna for at least 5 minutes. The heat helps to improve blood circulation.
Warm up before exercising
Warming your muscles up before exercising helps them to “level up” to the challenge of the actual workout, and reduces the likelihood and intensity of DOMS.
Know your limits
One way to prevent DOMS is to simply never work out hard enough to create the microtrauma that lead to sore muscles. However, I absolutely DO think that you should push yourself to the limit. How else are you going to grow beyond it? So embrace the pain and know that it’s what gives you gains!
Here’s a great video that gives you a quick explanation what muscle soreness is, how to prevent and treat it:
Wrapping things up
Im summary, sore muscles are a good thing if you want bigger muscles. And yes, you can work out with sore muscles, just make sure that it’s actually sore muscles, and not sore tendons or joints—you can use the three checks I mentioned further up in this article. Proven remedies (low-intensity activity, massage, hot baths, sauna) to alleviate sore muscles all do so by increasing the blood flow to the muscle.