Female Athlete Performing Yoga Exercises Near Waterfall

Muscle recovery might be just as important as going to the gym in the first place. However, it can be quite annoying at times.

You want to go to the gym, but you just can’t because you’re experiencing heavy muscle soreness. While you are able to get muscle soreness from injuries or even disease, this article will be focusing solely on painful muscles after a workout.

Should you still go to the gym? Are you able to remedy the pain?

These are questions I get asked a lot. In this article, I will be giving answers to these questions. Let’s start with the basics!

 

What is Muscle Soreness?

Painful muscles. We’re all experienced it once in our lives. It is recognized not only by pain though, as muscle soreness can cause a large drop in muscle strength.

If you’ve just trained your arms, chances are you will be having difficulty opening a bottle of shampoo.

So what is it exactly? Well, muscle strains come into being by heavy training to the point that your muscles are loaded heavier than they are used to.

The most common form is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). This occurs hours to a day after your workout and it may last up to 96 hours. Very heavy loads may even cause soreness for up to a week.

 

What Causes Muscle Soreness?

At this point in time, there is still a lot or research being done to determine the exact physiological processes that cause muscle soreness.

Generally speaking, muscle soreness has the following cause. You’re going to the gym and you are trying to lift heavier than the last week. To do so, you’re increasing the volume of your exercises by doing more reps or by adding new movements. During said workout, your muscles are being damaged by little tears in the fibers.

Eventually the combination of muscular damage and the breakdown of muscle proteins causes inflammations. This then leads to the synthesis of free radicals, as well as the secretion of histamine.

The accumulation of histamine leads to swellings in the surrounding muscle fibers. These swellings give off signals to pain receptors, which then send a signal to your brain.

In the end, you will feel muscle soreness.

 

The Repeated Bout Effect

The cause of muscle soreness might sound quite drastic. Torn muscle fibers, free radicals, and so on. However, it’s important to remember that this pain means that your body is actively recovering. Stay positive!

The immune system seems to play a big part in the process of muscle recovery, even though scientists are still not clear on how this mechanism works.

A recent study has shown that so-called T-cells (white blood cells) are actively involved in damaged muscle tissues. Usually, these T-cells are recruited by your body to clear out infections.

You might have noticed once that you will experience less muscle soreness after your next workout. You have your immune system to thank for that, as it learns from your muscle ‘abuse’.

The immune system recognizes that you’re working out and therefore responds by activating all sorts of processes in order to decrease muscle soreness.

This is called the Repeated Bout Effect.

A few weeks after the workout that gave you tremendous muscle soreness, you won’t feel nearly as much from a similar workout.

 

No Pain, No Gain. Oh, really?

Oh boy, here we go. A lot of people tend to think that muscle soreness equals a good workout and therefore muscle growth. This translates to the saying of ‘no pain, no gain’.

Contrary to common belief, muscle soreness is not necessary to stimulate muscle growth. As of this moment, scientists are debating whether muscle damage is even needed to promote muscle growth in the first place.

Think about the Repeated Bout Effect. Your body will eventually react very efficiently to workouts by giving less muscle soreness. That does not mean that nothing is happening in your body if you keep working out.

Muscle soreness doesn’t mean that you’ve had a great workout per se. Running for 10 miles could also give you muscle soreness, but hypertrophy (muscle growth) will be minimal.

A recent study has shown that muscle soreness that lasts for multiple days will indirectly decrease muscle growth, as you will not be able to train for a couple of days.

So there you have it, muscle soreness is not necessary for muscle growth. However, that doesn’t mean that it is a useless principle. Muscle soreness acts as a protective mechanism for your muscles, that prevents your from putting unnecessary stress on them until they have recovered.

After a period of recovery, you will be able to load your muscles even heavier. This is called super compensation, and it allows for progress.

 

How to Counter Muscle Soreness

Prevention is better than cure. Preventing muscle soreness is a lot easier than curing it. It is important that you balance working out, recovery and nutrition.

Train, eat, sleep, repeat.

If your sore muscles are really bothering you, there are a few solutions to lessen the pain, such as taking an aspirin. Remember though, that this will not speed your muscle recovery up in any way.

Therefore, preventing DOMS is a better approach, even if it might be difficult.

 

Designing a Proper Workout

Consistency

Thanks to the Repeated Bout Effect, the effects of muscle soreness will decrease as you progress. In order to progress though, you need to train consistently. Your body must constantly be remembered to recover after workouts.

If you stop training for a while, your immune system will ‘forget’ what it has learned. Therefore, the immune system needs to be ‘rebooted’ once you start working out again.

Keep in mind that training regularly won’t make your muscles recover any faster! The only thing you will notice, is a decrease in muscle soreness.

 

Take it Easy

While consistency of your workouts will lessen the effects of muscle soreness, taking your time to learn a new workout plan can also soften the pain you might get. Studies have shown that there’s a small chance of the effects of muscle soreness to increase a lot when increasing the weight of your exercises.

 

Recovery

As I’ve pointed out several times, your body needs to recover after working out. This doesn’t limit itself to just not working out for a bit. Recovery also depends heavily on sleep quality, stress and nutrition.

Of course, eating enough healthy foods is heavily recommended if you’re working out. However, some athletes swear that protein shakes are the be-all and end-all. Find out whether this is true in this article about protein shakes.

 

Working Out With Sore Muscles

Movement and exercises stimulates blood supply to your muscles, which can reduce stiffness. Active recovery through a cooling down session right after your workout, of just moving at a low intensity can therefore really help. Think of activities such as walking, cycling, yoga or swimming.

Several studies have shown that active recovery, i.e. very light strength training or cardio, can reduce DOMS up to 2-6 days after a workout. It’s important to note though, that muscle stiffness and soreness may not increase chances of injury, seeing as it results in affected mobility. Therefore, I recommend not to overdo your workouts when you have sore muscles.

The bottom line is that you should always listen to your body.

 

What to do Post-Workout

Are Massages Effective?

Often times, massages are used to reduce muscle soreness. Studies have shown that this can indeed reduce both stiffness and soreness. Whether it truly promotes recovery, remains unclear.

Massages seem to be most effective against muscle soreness 48 hours after training. This shouldn’t be surprising, as the effects of DOMS often are most expressed after 48 hours.

 

What About Cold?

Exposure to cold, i.e. cryotherapy, is often used as a solution to muscle soreness. A recent study has shown that taking an ice bath or a cold shower one day after working out, indeed lowers the effects of DOMS. It is even more effective than active recovery.

There is a downside to this, though. Cryotherapy decreases muscle adaptation, which in turn lowers the increase of muscle mass.

 

And How About Heat?

Some people prefer cold, others prefer heat. Going to a sauna before a workout could decrease muscle soreness and stiffness. However, there hasn’t been a lot of research that complements this statement.

Again: listen to your body. Choose whatever you like. Cold, heat, maybe nothing! Just don’t expect any miracles.

It’s the Little Things

Some athletes use compression clothing during workouts, because it is said to increase blood supply to the muscles. It is also said that wearing such clothes is effective against DOMS.

These rumors turned out to be true, as yet another study has shown. In this study, human test subjects were divided into two groups. One of these groups would wear compression clothing after their workout. The other didn’t.

The group that wore compression clothing indeed reported less muscle soreness. This result is complemented by a meta analysis of 12 different studies, which reported a decrease in muscles soreness as well as a faster recovery of muscle strength and explosiveness.

 

Are Supplements Effective?

Caffeine

First of all, let’s start with something that isn’t a supplement at all: coffee. It is shown that caffeine decreases muscle soreness. The recommended dosage equals 2.25 mg per pound of body weight, which is about 4-6 cups of coffee.

 

Creatine

Multiple studies have shown that creatine promotes muscle recovery and decreases inflammations. However, only a few studies have proven that it also decreases soreness.

Most of the research that was looking at the effects of creatine to muscle soreness, did not look at personal experiences regarding muscle soreness. Instead, biochemical parameters of DOMS were used. This is the reason why it’s difficult to say whether creatine is effective against muscle soreness.

Creatine is however one of the supplements that strength athletes could benefit from.

Click here to read more on the supplements that I use.

 

BCAA and Taurine

Branched chain amino acids (BCAA) is proven to be effective against muscle soreness and stiffness, as well as taurine. BCAA’s are three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine.

The word ‘essential’ means that the human body cannot produce it. Therefore, essential nutrients must be ingested through food or supplements.

 

Painkillers

Several studies have shown that it remains unclear whether painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin, codeine or ibuprofen are effective against muscle soreness.

This being said, I would recommend not to just take a handful of pills in the hope of your muscle soreness decreasing. Focus on the cause of muscle soreness, rather than symptoms.

 

In Conclusion

It is okay to train with sore muscles, as long as you’re not taking things too far. Active recovery does indeed lower the effects of muscle soreness and stiffness.

Wearing compression clothing also has a positive effect on recovery.

The main takeaway, is that preventing muscle soreness works better than curing it. There is no real shortcut. When your muscles get damaged by your training, you will feel it. Keep training consistent though, and the effects will decrease over time.

Leave your thoughts or questions in the comment section below!

 

Frequently Asked Questions

What causes muscle soreness?

Working out damages muscle tissue. This, combined with the breakdown of muscle proteins causes inflammations. Free radicals are synthetized, and histamine is secreted. This causes your muscles to swell and give off signals to pain receptors.

How do you counter muscle soreness?

Prevention is better than cure. Once you have acquired muscle soreness, you will just have to endure it. Eat well and rest.

Can supplements help with muscle soreness?

Caffeine can decrease muscle soreness. Creatine has shown to be effective against muscular inflammations. It also promotes muscle recovery. BCAA and taurine are proven to be effective against muscle soreness and stiffness. If that doesn’t work well enough, taking a few painkillers might help. Keep in mind though, that this is all symptom control.

22 thoughts on “All You Need to Know About Muscle Soreness

  1. This is brilliant! I actually read Tim Ferris book the 4 hour body last year as I had just ran a marathon and I wanted to put some good weight back on! I was 73kg and 6 foot 1. Following his training I was able to get back to 80kg in one month. I never once had DOMS! People said it probably wasn’t that effective but the results spoke for themselves I normally gain wait around my stomach and my waist increases by 2 cm in this time, whilst my chest gained 4 cm and my arms about 2cm each. The important thing was the food and like you say creative be BCAAs really helped me. Thanks for sharing looking forward to the next one 

    1. Hi Mike, 

      Thanks for dropping by! It is indeed possible not to experience DOMS. Pain doesn’t mean gain per se! It looks like you followed the right workout plan! 

      Have a great day! 

  2. Great article. I went to Krav Maga (Israeli martial arts) two months ago and initially had horrible sore muscles. I’m sorry I didn’t come across your article at the time, I was just waiting for it to pass. I’m not a drug fan, and I didn’t know any other way to speed up my recovery. I’m interested in your opinion on the BCAA. Do you drink them, how often, and are there any negative consequences?

    1. Hi there,

      BCAA’s can be taken in several ways. You can drink them in a shake of sorts, of you can take a pill. It’s personal preference. I used to take them once a day, every morning. Nowadays, BCAA’s are included in my protein shake so I don’t really go out of my way to take more BCAA’s.

      Regarding cons of BCAA’s: taking them does deplete B vitamins, which are critical for acid metabolism. Therefore it’s recommended to eat planty of vitamin B foods. Another possible downside can be that taking BCAA’s may lead to low serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that boosts mood and aids sleep. However, eating plenty of carbs can negate this. The other downside, is that it isn’t a supplement for high quality proteins. It’s not really a downside, but more of a shortcoming. 

      So all in all, taking BCAA’s has no severe negative consequences, especially if your food intake is up to par. 

      Hopefully this answers your question!

  3. Hey Kevin, Thanks for writing on Muscle Soreness. Awesome info I learned while reading. While doing hard word or going in gym first day for training. I was not able to open a water bottle due to muscle soreness. But I go for practice next day because I know if will recover automatically. If I don’t go than I have to face more muscle soreness. So activity reduce muscle soreness. I found very useful info from your article. Thank you. Parveen

    1. Hi Parveen,

      Happy to see you’ve learned something. Exercising causes your body to release dopamine, serotonin and endorphin. These three neurotransmitters contribute to your mood and it relieves pain. Yet another reason why exercising with muscle soreness can ease the pain.

      Have a great day! 

  4. Hello Kevin. Thank you for sharing all I need to know about muscle soreness. I have experienced muscle soreness before and currently as a result of my work. Offloading, dragging and lifting of heavy pieces of wood. I felt this sharp pain in my left arm muscle. Got subsided after few days now I am feeling the pain again because I did more of the job. I also remember when I got started with workouts, I never really knew that caffeine can help. Really cool. Thanks for the tips.

    All the best!

    1. Hi there,

      Heavy lifting is bound to result in muscle soreness to a certain degree. I hope you are recovering well and that you’re not overtraining. 

      Cheers!

  5. I encountered your post at the right time – feeling sore from yesterday’s leg workout 😊 As always, you provided excellent explanations and very interesting read for me.

    I was hoping you will say that cryotherapy doesn’t really help – because I honestly hate it. I have compression socks, but I have never yet wear them during my workout – I will try it and see if they make any difference for me.

    My go-to tactic for sore muscles is that I train different muscle group each day – today it’s back and biceps, so my legs can have a break. Do you think my approach is a good one for my muscle recovery?

    Now I’m going to drink another cup of coffee, thank you for getting me a great reason to do so! 😉

    1. Hi Katja, 

      Thank you for dropping by! Remember: cryotherapy might be effective when it comes to easing the pain in your muscles, but it has been proven to slightly decrease muscle adaptation. Furthermore, if you don’t like it, don’t do it. Working out, as well as recovering, should feel good. If you’re actively going against your own will, you might get demotivated.

      Regarding your training routine: I’d say you’re doing a great job. I used to do exactly that. For example, when your legs ache, it doesn’t mean that you can’t train your back! So yes, I think that approach is fine for muscle recovery. 

      Enjoy your coffee and have a great day! 

  6. Hey thank you for another great post!  I have always heard no pain, no gain.  I honestly thought that you did need to feel some sort of muscle soreness to know that you have had a good workout.  I’m actually kind of shocked that that is not necessarily the case!  Thank you for the tips on how to prevent it, then!  This will come in pretty handy.  I also think that consistency is one of my biggest issues, that and sleep.  Sleep, I literally try but because of all the stress and what not, I get maybe five to six hours a night, and consistency is hard because I’m always working to pay the bills!

    1. Hi Jessie, 

      I used to think the same. I’m glad I never took it too far, though. If you have a workout plan, just follow it to the tee. Eventually you will see resuls, and if you don’t, you need a different workout plan. 

      Consistency and rest are two major factors that come into play in the world of exercise. Heck, rest is important in general. It can be difficult to juggle everything at the same time, though. I hope you can find a way to give yourself some more free time!

      Have a great day! 

  7. Thanks a million for these lots of information. On several occasions, we have no choice but to engage in activities that causes pain to our muscles. At times the pains are so much that we cannot move our arms or legs.
    Good to know that muscle soreness is a protective mechanism, helping us to avoid putting the muscle under stress conditions. And also the concept of “Repeated Bout Effect”; where our immune system responds by activating processes to decrease muscle soreness.

    1. Hi there, 

      Thanks for dropping by! Muscle soreness in general is fine, but there is a thing called ‘too much pain’. This is why you need a structured an tailor made workout plan that works for you.

      Have a great day! 

  8. Hi Kevin, great article and lots of thoughtful advice.  For those people starting out in their gym training, knowing what and how to combat muscle soreness is critical to avoiding long-term injury and a potential psychological barrier to exercise because it is always associated with pain.  No pain no gain, but one can only tolerate pain for so long before you give up and go back to reading the Sunday paper instead. Not so painful.

    I was interested to read your recommendation on coffee to help combat the effects of muscle.  I had never heard of using coffee before as it is often the case that coffee is removed from the diet of those under a strict training regime.  Mind you, in a funny way it does make sense – I imagine you wouldn’t feel much of anything, even muscle soreness, after drinking 6 cups of coffee each day.

    When I used to train regularly at a gym, it was drummed into us to do warm-ups and warm-downs around every weights session and keep your fluids up whilst training.  It seemed to work for a lot of us and we could continue to train at a fairly high intensity over long periods of time. Where do these ‘techniques’ fit into the equation for reducing muscle soreness?  Or is this no longer accepted wisdom?  I’d be interested in your thoughts on this, Kevin.

    1. Hi there, 

      Thank you for leaving your thoughts! I am of the philosophy that warming up and cooling down is indeed very important, especially if you are training hard. I usuall do 1 warming up set, after which I start my first workout set. After the initial set, I’m ready to continue. Therefore I don’t do a whole lot of warming up. I want my body to be ready to exert a lot of energy, but at the same time I don’t want to be fatigued after my warming up. 

      Cheers! 

  9. As a frequent visitor to your site I was well happy to find this article. There’s plenty here that I wasn’t aware of. I have suffered on and off over the years with muscle soreness. I never really paid it much attention, just felt that it was a result of whatever workout I had been doing.

    Here’s the thing though. When I was running the muscle soreness was ever present and exactly as you described. Normally the following day, sometimes even the day after that. However, if I was to attempt to run, the soreness would soon disappear. After a number of months of this routine, the soreness was at a minimum.

    You’ve provided some great alternatives to just putting up with it. Like you say, everyone is different and will have their own ideas of what works best for themselves. Also, you’ve given me a good reason to start back on coffee.

    1. Hi there,

      Cool to see that you’re a frequent visitor! It means a lot. 

      Muscle soreness is indeed a personal experience. Some recover fast, others very slow. There is no fast way out, as you have experienced first hand. I’m glad you found this article useful! 

      Have a great day! 

  10. Great article! I always think that it is better to workout during soreness to promote the muscle growth better, now I can see that it is wrong. Our body really know what’s the best for us. Now I will focus to rest and recover my body after each workout. Oh, I will also test my body to go sauna before workout. Maybe I will prefer the heat. Thanks

    1. Hi there, 

      Thank you for dropping by! Exactly, your body knows what’s best for you. If you don’t feel muscle soreness, just let it be. Patience will be rewarded! 

      Cheers! 

  11. Thanks for this post on the muscle soreness, many times after working out do have the sore all over my body, sometimes this really makes me not to go to the gym and after my trainer told me on how to go about, that I should continue training even with the soreness , since then have been overcoming the pains and it reduces anytime it comes and I continue with the training, thanks 

    1. Hi Rose, 

      Thank you for leaving your thoughts. Working out with sore muscles can be very difficult and demotivating. You could try this though! Let’s say that you work out on Monday. This workout then leaves your body shattered and in need of rest, and so you will. However, Wednesday is supposed to be training day number 2. However, you’re still sore. I would recommend to still go train, but on a lower intensity (so less weight). That way, you’re still doing “what you’re supposed to”, while at the same time you are actively recovering. 

      Have a great day! 

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