“Muscle soreness is a very common side effect of training, especially in beginners as well as experienced trainees who engage in new, unfamiliar exercises which stimulate the muscles in different ways than they are normally used to,” says Paul Mostoff, D.P.T., chief of physical therapy at All Sports Physical Therapy in New York City.
This exercise-related soreness, otherwise known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), usually worsens a day or two after training and then begins to subside within a few days.
So, what causes this soreness? That’s a good question, and one researchers don’t fully understand. But, they believe it has something to do with micro-trauma, or the very small tears and structural damage to the muscle tissue that occurs when lifting—and the associated inflammation that follows as your muscles try repair themselves.
But just because you’re sore after a killer workout doesn’t necessarily mean you’re making progress. In fact, Mostoff says it could actually have the opposite effect if it takes away from your other workouts during the week or interferes with your ability to go about your daily life.
That’s why we asked the experts to share with us the worst things you can do when your muscles are sore. Here’s what they had to say.
Yes, you need to move your body—even if the slightest movement makes you wince.
The bottom line is this: Don’t stop moving the joint above and below the sore muscle. “Motion is lotion and it’s important to keep your joints moving,” says John-Paul Rue, M.D., an orthopedics and sports medicine doctor at Mercy Medical Center in Maryland. So if your quads are sore, that would mean you should focus on moving your knee joint and hip joint.
Muscles contract to act on joints to move them, so it makes sense that when you have sore muscles from a workout, it can be painful to move the joint, right? Of course, it might not feel great, but your joints need movement to keep them lubricated and moving freely. Staying curled up on the couch can cause muscles to get stiff, which makes the pain from the soreness much worse.
And while rest is important for recovery, doing a little bit of light exercise to get your muscles working helps to decrease the actual sensation of muscle soreness. This likely occurs because of the boost in circulation, as well as the production of endorphins even during light exercise, Mostoff says.
The key here is light exercise. This is not your normal workout, so you need to start slow and keep it easy. That means something like a walk or a slow jog for 20 minutes.
Ever notice the guy who comes into the gym, looks around, and then randomly picks some lifts to do? He’s likely the same guy who changes his workout every single time he hits the weights. And while changing things up occasionally is key to meeting your goals, mixing things up too much can have negative consequences.
Mostoff warns gym-goers who are constantly changing their exercises each time they hit the gym to try a different approach—especially when battling sore, achy muscles. “Your body needs time to adapt to an exercise routine, and when it does, your muscles will acclimate to the activity and you won’t experience the same level of soreness anymore,” he says.
If you constantly change your exercises, you will provide your muscles with novel stimuli and they won’t get a chance to adapt to any specific activity, so you’ll create more and more soreness with each workout.
Bottom line is this: Listen to your body. If it’s constantly sore and you’re always making changes to your workout, ease up on the changes. Let your muscles and joints adjust to a new routine before adding anything else.
Scan any gym and you’re bound to see a guy cheating on his form—say, someone using their entire upper body to do a bicep curl. While the weight he’s stacked on the bar might look impressive to some, the horrible technique he’s using is guaranteed to aggravate even the slightest muscle soreness.
“If your muscles hurt, be careful as you go through your workout routine to not cause inadvertent injury to other body parts because of poor form,” explains Dr. Rue.
You might unintentionally favor your sore muscles and instead recruit other muscles for the lift. That might throw your form off, so those muscles could end up getting hurt, too.
Instead, he recommends decreasing the weight or resistance to allow your muscles to work smoothly through a normal range of motion. Remember, the workouts following a bout of serious DOMS should not be performed at your max or even sub-max level. Give your body some time to recover.
Some exercises are more likely to trigger DOMS—like those killer, slow, lowering motions you do with bicep curls. When you lower a weight, the muscle has to contract while it’s lengthening.
Eccentric training is basically any form of training where the muscles are being lengthened under a load. Mostoff says these “lengthened contractions” occur when you lift a heavy weight up and then bring it down very slowly.
“Eccentrics have been shown to worsen muscle soreness—so if your exercise program is heavily dominated by eccentrics, it will supercharge your soreness,” he says.
Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with incorporating eccentric training in your workout. In fact, it might even supercharge your gains. But if you’re extra sore following a workout, you might want to back off the eccentric training for a few days.
And if you always tend to focus on really slow, eccentric training—lowering the weight slower than normal—think in terms of controlling the eccentric contraction rather than slowing it down. Lowering the weight in a bicep curl, for example, should take no more than one to three seconds.