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Fact checked by Andrew Lenau, ISSA CPT & Sports NutritionistFACT CHECKED
October 09, 2023
It's leg day, and you're mind's rearing to go. But your quads are still sore from your last workout. Should you subject them to another intense squats and lunges or leave it for another day to ensure optimal recovery and long-term muscle growth?
It's a common question that often gets conflicting answers. In this article, we'll clear up the confusion to provide you with the definitive research-backed answer to the issue of whether you should work out with sore muscles.
Here's what we'll cover:
When it comes to post-workout muscle soreness, you first need to identify the source of the pain to ensure it is not an injury. Is it coming from your muscles or your joints and tendons?
If you feel soreness in the belly of a muscle after working that body part, it is likely to be muscle soreness. However, if the soreness is at the extreme ends of the muscle, at the origin or insertion points, it's likely to be a tendon injury or muscle strain. In that case, you need to rest the muscle.
The focus of this article is muscle belly soreness brought on by training, known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This muscle soreness occurs from the microscopic muscle tissue damage caused by your intense workout (1).
An essential part of the muscle-building process, this muscle tearing causes an inflammatory response that initiates the repair process (2). Part of this process involves the release of chemicals associated with pain, such as cytokines and prostaglandins (3).
Further, the muscle fiber damage your exercise routine causes interrupts the normal communication between your nervous system and your muscles. This may interfere with muscle control, leading to muscle tenseness. Your workout also causes the build-up of metabolic waste in the muscle cells, which also contributes to the feeling of discomfort.
The old belief that DOMS was caused by lactic acid build-up has been discredited. Studies show that your lactic acid levels will normalize within a few hours of the workout, while the soreness can continue for a day or two (4).
Delayed onset muscle soreness is a necessary part of the intense exercise equation, contributing to the rebuilding of bigger, stronger muscles. This soreness should go away after 24-48 hours.
Your goal for each workout should be to slightly increase the intensity with which the muscle is worked. The muscle will have no reason to respond unless you provide it with that extra bit of stress.
You won't be able to provide that level of intensity if your muscles are still aching from the last workout. So, you should not work out unless the muscle group in question has fully recovered from the last workout. Part of that recovery involves the completion of the DOMS cycle.
Your muscles don't develop during your weight-training workout. They develop during the rest and recovery time between your workouts.
So, if you're doing a split routine exercise regimen, where you're working your chest and back on day one, your shoulder and arms on day two, and your legs on day three, your chest and back are recovering on the days you're working those other body parts. By planning to have two days rest before your next workout for that muscle, you should be able to allow for the completion of DOMS before working that muscle group again.
It all comes down to how sore the muscle is prior to your workout. If you get to leg day, and you can still feel every muscle in your quads with every step you take, but it's not uncomfortable, you should still work your legs.
Personally, I find that this feeling, which I call muscle awareness rather than muscle soreness, strengthens my mind-muscle connection, helping me to get in the leg training zone. On the other hand, if you're still struggling to climb stairs, you should give yourself more time for your quads to fully recover.
Mild muscle soreness indicates that you've put sufficient stress on your muscles to cause an adaptive response. It's a sign of your muscles' adjusting and strengthening.
Muscle fibers sustain minor injury when you exercise, particularly when you use resistance or strength training. Your muscles become more resilient and better able to manage new difficulties as your body heals these microtears.
Muscle pain post-workout can also be a motivating factor. It can be a physical reminder of the efforts you put into your workouts and an indication that the muscle-building and strengthening process is underway.
The ability to distinguish between typical DOMS and symptoms of potential injury or overexertion is crucial since, while some pain may be a sign of progress, it can also be harmful.
To distinguish between soreness and injury, consider the following:
While it's typically a good idea to give your muscles time to recuperate after challenging workouts, working out while you have delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) has certain advantages. These advantages can be strategically tapped to improve your fitness journey.
While there are advantages to exercising while having painful muscles, it's important to understand that there are also inherent dangers and potential drawbacks connected to doing so.
Here's an overview of the main risks:
Here are six proven strategies to minimize post-workout muscle soreness and promote muscle recovery:
Here are the answers to the most common questions on working out with sore muscles I get as a personal trainer:
While it's natural to want faster progress, working out intensely with sore muscles may increase the risk of injury and hinder long-term gains. It's essential to strike a balance between pushing your limits and allowing your body the recovery it needs for sustainable progress.
Distinguishing between normal muscle soreness (DOMS) and potential injury can be challenging. Watch for severe, localized pain, sharp sensations, or unusual swelling. If soreness is severe or persists beyond a few days, it's wise to consult a healthcare professional to get it medically reviewed.
Not necessarily. You can still engage in light, low-impact activities like walking, swimming, or yoga for active recovery. These activities can help alleviate soreness and promote circulation without overtaxing your muscles. Always listen to your body and adjust your workout accordingly.
If your muscles are aching, you should not work out. This soreness is a sign that you haven't fully recovered from the last workout, something which is crucial for progress.
Giving a muscle group 48 hours before working it again can minimize the chances of this happening. During that recovery time, you can engage in some light active recovery exercise or simply work different muscle groups.
To learn more about how to reduce soreness and get back to your next training session at 100%, read Your Guide To Muscle & Workout Recovery.
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