Should You Exercise When You're Sore?

Woman doing curls with a dumbbell

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Just about everyone who exercises experiences soreness at times, especially those who are new to exercise or trying a new activity. While soreness is not a requirement for getting a good workout, it does occur.

Whether to work out again while still sore from your last session is a case-by-case decision that depends largely on the degree of discomfort. Fortunately, there are things you can do to reduce the pain and keep your fitness plan on track.

Here's a closer look at post-exercise soreness and guidelines for working out while sore.

Why Muscles Get Sore After Exercise

Delayed-onset muscle soreness is natural when you challenge the muscles with new exercises or more intensity. When you put new stress on the body, it adapts to handle the new load.

Part of the adaptation process includes muscle soreness due to microscopic tears in the connective tissue that support and surround the muscle.

Sore muscles are in the process of healing and growing stronger, so you should avoid stressing them even more by doing heavy, intense exercise.

However, a light workout may offer some temporary relief as you warm the muscles to increase healing blood flow to the tissue.

Soreness Levels

When it comes to exercising through the pain, it is important to determine the degree of soreness and use your own judgment. Some things to consider before your workout:

  • A Little Stiff: A light-to-moderate cardio workout along with stretches can loosen stiff muscles. A dynamic warm-up of moves like marching in place, side-steps, lunges, and arm circles, followed by light stretching can help get the blood flowing so you are ready to work out.
  • Noticeably Sore: Either take a rest day, take a walk, or try a light cardio workout and stretching. Again, a dynamic warm-up and stretching can help bring healing blood to the muscles. After you have warmed up, if you still feel too sore for your workout, you can take a rest day or keep your exercise light.
  • Very Sore: If you are so sore it hurts to lift your arms to brush your hair or participate in everyday activities, you overdid it and need a rest day. The bad news is your soreness may be even worse on the second day and you may need to take two or three days off a workout. On the third or fourth day, try light cardio (e.g., walking) or a lighter version of the original workout you did use lighter weights or no weight, fewer sets and less intensity overall.

Dealing With Sore Muscles

Soreness may be an inevitable part of getting in shape, but over time will pass. In the meantime, try these methods for coping with muscle soreness:

  • Light Exercise: Some studies suggest that yoga, light weight training (using no weight or very light weights) or light cardio (e.g., walking) may help reduce symptoms of DOMs.
  • Massage: Though studies are conflicting, there are some studies showing that massage might alleviate some muscle soreness. Massage is believed to bring blood to sore muscles to promote healing. However, massages can also leave you sore afterward. Be sure to drink plenty of water afterward.
  • Anti-inflammatory Medication: NSAIDs such as ibuprofen can reduce pain and inflammation. There are side effects, so talk to your doctor before taking any anti-inflammatories.
  • Ice Baths: There are conflicting studies about ice baths, but some studies suggest they can improve recovery from DOMs. Whether you can tolerate sitting in a bathtub full of ice is an entirely different question.
  • Epsom Salt Baths: When your muscles are sore, taking a warm bath with Epsom salts can help you to feel better. After the bath, while the muscles are still warm, try some gentle stretches.
  • Time: Time is the one thing that works every time. Most soreness will ease after about two or three days, allowing you to get back to your workouts.

Tips for Avoiding Muscle Soreness

It's impossible to completely avoid muscle soreness, especially if you have a goal to lose weight or change your body. However, keep in mind that the recovery process is just as important as the workouts.

It's during your rest days that your body heals and grows stronger. It can't do that if you don't give it enough rest.

While you can't completely avoid getting sore, there are things you can do to minimize it:

  • Ease into your workouts. Start slowly to allow your muscles to gradually adapt to the stress of new activities or intensities. This is especially true if you've taken a long break from exercise. Going back to the workouts you used to do may be too much for your body.
  • Gradually build intensity. To get in shape, burn calories, and lose weight, you have to challenge your body with more stress than it's used to, one of the things that cause soreness. If you're a beginner, any activity is more stress than your body is used to, so you may need to stay with the same workouts for one to two weeks before adding intensity.
  • Be consistent. Once you've gotten sore from a specific workout or intensity, you shouldn't experience it again until the intensity is increased. Continuing to workout regularly will help you maintain that level of strength until you're ready for more intensity.
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