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.

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 relief as you warm the muscles to increase healing blood flow to the tissue.

Let Soreness Level Be Your Guide

When it comes to exercising through the pain, it is important to determine the degree of soreness and use your own judgment.

  • If you are a little stiff: A light-to-moderate cardio workout 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.
  • If you are 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, take a rest day or keep your exercise light.
  • If you are very sore: If it hurts to lift your arms to brush your hair or participate in everyday activities, you need a rest day (or two or three; soreness may be even worse on the second day). After you rest, try light cardio or a lighter version of the original workout you did: Use lighter weights or no weight, do fewer sets, and work with less intensity overall.

How to Treat Sore Muscles

Soreness may be an inevitable part of getting in shape, but over time will pass. In the meantime, 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.

Though studies are conflicting, there is some research showing that massage might alleviate muscle soreness. Massage is believed to bring blood to sore muscles to promote healing. However, massages can also leave you sore. Be sure to drink plenty of water afterward.

Over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, can reduce pain and inflammation. There are side effects, so talk to your doctor before taking any anti-inflammatories.

Some studies suggest ice baths can improve recovery from DOMs. Whether you can tolerate sitting in a bathtub full of ice is an entirely different question. A warm bath with Epsom salts may feel better. After the bath, while the muscles are still warm, try some gentle stretches.

How to Avoid 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. Your body heals and grows stronger during rest days. 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 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. And that causes 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 work out regularly will help you maintain that level of strength until you're ready for more intensity.
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  2. Zainuddin Z, Newton M, Sacco P, Nosaka K. Effects of massage on delayed-onset muscle soreness, swelling, and recovery of muscle function. J Athl Train. 2005;40(3):174-80.

  3. Bleakley C, McDonough S, Gardner E, Baxter GD, Hopkins JT, Davison GW. Cold-water immersion (cryotherapy) for preventing and treating muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012;(2):CD008262. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD008262.pub2.

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