Stop suffering from post-workout soreness with these expert tips
Hint: It's not all lactic acid.
Recommendations are independently chosen by Reviewed’s editors. Purchases you make through our links may earn us a commission.
It’s common knowledge that staying active is crucial to a healthy lifestyle. But whether you’re using an app to work out, hitting the CrossFit Box, or just starting out with some beginner exercises, the resulting muscle soreness may make you feel hesitant or even dread facing the mat for yet another session.
Fear not: You can take action for those workout-induced aches and pains from understanding why it happens in the first place to learning how to treat it. We spoke with several exercise science specialists to get the lowdown on post-workout recovery.
What is muscle soreness?
The first thing to understand is that there’s a lot going on with that tight, tender feeling you get after a particularly tough session at the gym. “We believe that both muscle and connective tissue are damaged during exercise,” says Jacob Wilson, PhD, CSCS*D, a skeletal muscle physiologist who has studied muscle soreness for the better part of two decades. “As a result, the immune system is triggered to elicit an inflammatory response that causes pain and muscle swelling.”
The most common form of soreness, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), is caused not by the huge-effort pushing or pulling aspects of an exercise, but rather by the return-to-start eccentric muscle contractions that fight gravity, like the landing of a jump or the lowering portion of a lift, according to Billy Marrone, PT, DPT, SCS, CSCS, a physical therapist at the Hospital for Special Surgery. That soreness may start hours after working out and can last anywhere from five to seven days, but is most intense after 48 to 72 hours.
Muscle soreness happens for a few reasons, says Wilson. First, you may have exerted yourself to an unprecedented degree, say, by increasing your weight load or speed. Next, you may have completed a new workout at an exertion rate that was higher than your typical output. This new workout may also have initiated “muscle confusion,” which activates a new range of muscles than you’re used to using.
Should soreness be the goal when you exercise?
Although soreness can feel like an indication that your strength or conditioning levels are about to, ahem, soar, it’s not the only—or always the best—way to gauge the effectiveness of a workout. After all, you can generally conclude that if you push yourself to lift progressively heavier or do more reps, you'll earn sore muscles for sure. But what may be more effective—and less pain inducing—is mixing up your exercises, according to Wilson, whose research in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research confirms the theory. “We looked at what happens when people just do squats or when people do squats, and mix it up with things like lunges and leg presses. What we found is that people who switched it up got stronger and more complete muscular development.” While that "muscle confusion" may cause some soreness, it likely won't be the same intensity as if you went into your workouts with a "no pain no gain" mentality.
On the other hand, never experiencing soreness could be a sign your workouts aren’t making as much of a difference as they once were. In this case, it’s likely that your body has adapted to a given amount of resistance or intensity, according to Marrone. To that end, "a change in exercise selection can provide the body with a novel stimulus and challenge the muscles in an unfamiliar way, which can be beneficial for improvements in strength, endurance and overall fitness," he says. Changing variables such as your load, cadence, and/or rep scheme can do the same, just take care to modify only one at a time so as not to over-stress your muscles.
In short: Some soreness is to be expected when you’re doing a workout program (and if you’re new to exercise, it may feel more intense), but you should consider it a byproduct of your routine, not the goal.
When muscle soreness might be a more serious problem
The first time you experience that dull ache in your muscles—or, say, you struggle to walk down the stairs—it could be alarming. But Wilson says that unless you’ve been training or participating in extreme conditions or events such as military boot camps, sustained military operations, Ironman competitions or marathons, your body is likely to heal on its own within a few days. However, if you’re unable to move a limb, he recommends medical attention.
Marrone also says to look out for muscle soreness presenting in combination with other symptoms such as fever, nausea, and discolored urine (typically dark or tea-colored). This could be a sign of rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which muscles begin to break down and enter the bloodstream, which requires treatment from a medical professional.
What to do before a workout to ease recovery
Your quest to ease recovery begins far before your last rep. Marrone recommends looking at your lifestyle from a holistic level to ensure you’re setting your body up for the best possible outcomes. “The main pillars of any recovery program should include proper habits regarding sleep and nutrition,” he says. “Consult a registered dietician if [you have any] concerns.”
Another step is to assess how well-recovered you are from your previous workout before you even begin your next set of exercises or decide what level of intensity you’re prepared to safely and comfortably work at. Marrone says working out before making a full recovery can increase your risk of injury resulting from reduced joint mobility and muscle strength. Too frequent exercise could make you prone to overtraining syndrome, which may require extended periods of recovery, and compromise the neurological, endocrine, and immune systems.
Recovery also has an impact on your overall athletic performance. When you exercise, “your body repairs the damage and compensates and then supercompensates. This means that it gets better than it was before you worked out. If you interrupt this process by not allowing recovery, you will not supercompensate,” Wilson says. Take his research as a guide, for example: His lab performed a study on the perceived recovery scale (PRS), a ranking system from 0 to 10, with 10 being fully recovered and five or below being not well recovered. He found that athletes who perform their hardest workouts when they reported near an 8 to 10 recovery level experienced the best gains and recovery.
Once you’re confident you’re ready to start working out, Marrone emphasizes the importance of warming up before every session. Important warm-up components include elevating your heart rate, activating main muscle groups, and mobilizing relevant areas through dynamic stretching—meaning, moving through ranges of motion rather thanholding static stretches. Even if you’re planning an upper body workout, you’ll want to warm up your full body, because you may be recruiting your lower body to assist in stabilizing upper body movements such as a plank position or bent over row with glutes and quads engaged. When warming up, large bodies of research suggest dynamic stretching may be safer and more effective than static stretching because it more gently releases the muscle in preparation for the activity, and static stretching may further injure a “cold” (or non-warmed up) muscle.
What to do during a workout to ease recovery
It's pretty simple: If you want to reduce the likelihood of post-workout soreness, don’t overdo it in your workouts. Marrone recommends gradually increasing exercising progressions to allow the body to steadily prepare for each subsequent workout, sustaining proper exercise technique and form, selecting the appropriate resistance, and maintaining appropriate work-to-rest ratios between sets. These factors are highly dependent on the type of workout you’re completing, be it high-intensity interval training, lifting weights, or running, so if you’re unsure about proper protocol, he recommends consulting a certified exercise professional for an individualized training program.
What to do after a workout to ease recovery
The hard part is over: Now it’s time to give your muscles some much-needed TLC. What you do directly after a workout plays an integral role in your recovery. Marrone suggests cooling down with some gentle cardio exercise consisting of the likes of low-level cycling, swimming, or walking (in a pool if you have access to one). He says this may help shift the body towards a more relaxed state, reduce soreness, and help clear the bloodstream of metabolic by-products, like lactic acid.
Next, Marrone recommends post-workout static stretching in order to restore joint range of motion. You can use a resistance band to get deeper into stretches, but no matter how you choose to stretch, hold each one for a total of 60 seconds. You can do it all at once or in shorter spurts. For extra stretching guidance, you may find it helpful to follow along with a gentle yoga flow. Any slow, restorative flow you can find in person or on YouTube should work, but we especially love the Alo Moves yoga app. When we tested it, we loved its ample selection of slow—but never boring—restorative classes that allow enough time to sink into each pose.
Foam rolling or massage may also help promote relaxation, reduce perceived muscle soreness, and improve joint range of motion, according to Marrone. Based on our testing, the LuxFit Premium High-Density Foam Roller is our top pick for how easy it is to use and for how effectively it smooths out sore muscles without digging into them too deeply. As for massage guns, our tester raved over Therabody Theragun Elite for its ergonomic design that allows you to target hard-to-reach areas like the back and neck, and for its intuitive and educational Bluetooth app that allows you to select pre-designed programs like warm-up or recovery.
Finally, remember to rehydrate. You don’t need to guzzle a whole bottle of water at once, but replenishing the fluids lost during your workout will help your muscles feel better faster. When you’re done with your cool-down, sip some water and pair it with a healthy snack, and you’ll be well on your way to recovery.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.