Being sore after a workout is like receiving a gold star; it’s a promising reminder of the gains you’re making, the effort it took to hit the gym, and how you really pushed yourself during your workout.
While soreness is natural after trying a new workout or workout to improve strength, hypertrophy (muscle growth), and endurance, there’s a fine line between the “no pain, no gain” mentality and pushing your body too hard. Challenging yourself physically brings results, but you need to listen to your body and give it the rest it needs between workouts.
That said, if you’re sore the day after your workout or even for several days afterward, should you still be working out? If you’ve recently started a new exercise plan or are trying to be more consistent with your fitness routine, you may be reluctant to skip a day, but working out while sore isn’t always a good idea. We spoke to a physical therapist, fitness coach, and performance coach to learn more about the benefits and dangers of working out with sore muscles, plus anything else you need to know when dealing with muscle soreness.
Why do your muscles get sore
To figure out if it’s a good idea to exercise when you’re sore, you need to know what exactly muscle soreness is and why muscles sore in the first place.
Body aches occur when your body is exposed to a stressor in this case, exercise it’s not used to. During a tough workout or strenuous physical activity, you actually cause damage to muscle fibers and connective tissues. Next, your body begins a recovery process to repair that damage. Sounds like a bad thing, but it’s actually a good thing: During the repair process, your body rebuilds those fibers stronger than before, which results in gains in muscle or strength, making you more physically capable. However, in the meantime, the inflammatory response that occurs (and the pain you feel) stems from both the damage and the processes needed to heal, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).
Should you exercise when you’re in pain?
When it comes to working out while in pain, there’s some nuance involved, says athletic trainer and physical therapist Meghan Barrington, DPT, CSCS.
In general, if you’re a little stiff after a hard workout, it’s okay to exercise sore muscles. It can actually be beneficial, because the movement promotes blood flow and the blood aids recovery, Barrington explains. Blood flow speeds up the delivery of nutrients to damaged muscles, making the tissues flexible and increasing range of motion, which helps relieve pain and support the recovery process.
That said, the type of training does matter. When you train while in pain, the best choice is the one geared towards active recovery, i.e. low intensity and low impact. The NASM recommends light resistance exercise (such as core work) or aerobic exercise (also known as cardio), which is ideal for active recovery because it raises your heart rate and thus promotes circulation. That makes activities like walking, jogging, swimming, biking, and light hiking great options when you’re in pain.
It can also be pleasant to stretch, although current research hasn’t shown that stretching has specific benefits for sore muscles. The key to stretching while sore is to take it slowly and make very gentle movements so you don’t inflict further damage on the muscle.
If you plan to exercise while sore, it’s also a good idea to alternate muscle groups so you don’t further damage already sore muscles, according to NASM. For example, if your lower body is sore from a daily leg workout, you can do the upper body and core work while your legs and glutes are recovering.
And if you’re in a lot of pain, can barely walk or lift your arms, take the hint and give your body time to rest rather than hit the gym.
Overall, it’s important to give your body time to recover, as there are some risks when it comes to exercising when you’re in pain. In the short term, exercising too much without enough recovery can leave you feeling dejected or put you at risk for injury, according to the Hospital for Special Surgery. And over time, exercising too much without giving your body adequate rest can cause overtraining syndrome, characterized by symptoms such as fatigue, overuse injuries, decreased performance, loss of appetite and a weakened immune system.
If it looks like you are Always sore, you may also need to look at how you’re structuring your workout, as well as your nutrition, hydration and other parts of your recovery and overall stress management, Barrington says. If you’re in extreme pain after every workout, it could mean that you’re exercising too much, training too hard, or trying to push yourself too far beyond your body’s current capabilities.
Muscle pain versus injury
Before you even think about exercising while in pain, it’s also imperative to make sure what you’re feeling isn’t an injury. The pain is not always clear-cut; however, if your pain isn’t stiff, aching or tense, you may have injured yourself while exercising.
“Injuries can occur when the body is exposed to excessive loads or forces that exceed its ability to absorb or adapt to them,” explains athletic trainer Aleena Kanner, host of the “Move Your Brain Move Your Body” podcast. Some signs that you may have injured a muscle are tenderness and swelling, deep or sharp pains, or pain or symptoms that persist for more than five days. If so, you should not exercise and should seek medical attention.
Recovery techniques to relieve muscle pain
In addition to or instead of working out with sore muscles, follow these tips from trainer Lisa Ulley, CEO of LisaUlleyFit, to help your body recover after a workout.
- Heating: Start with gentle, dynamic stretching in the morning if your muscles are sore, says Ulley.
- Stay Hydrated: “Be consistent with drinking about a gallon of water every day,” Ulley recommends. Staying hydrated helps your body maintain proper circulation, which is important for recovery.
- Get Enough Protein: Protein is essential for building and repairing muscle tissue, so make sure you’re eating enough protein daily (0.8 to 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight), says Ulley.
- Prioritize sleep: During sleep, your body does a lot of recovery work, so it’s important to get seven to nine hours of sleep a night when you’re recovering, says Ulley.
The takeaway on how to exercise while sore
When in doubt, listen to your body and give it the rest it needs to recover. Working out sore muscles can be beneficial because it encourages blood flow, which can help speed recovery, but it can also come with risks, the biggest of which is injury.
If you’re in pain all the time, it might be a clue to take a closer look at your training plan and goals. Whether you’re working on your own or with a fitness professional, developing an exercise program with your specific goals in mind can help you form habits that will help you build a solid foundation and progress at a safe pace.
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