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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.