You know the feeling, waking up after a heavy leg workout.
You yawn, stretch your arms out, and climb out of bed.
Then you fall on the ground because your legs don’t appear to be working anymore!
You’re suffering from extreme muscle soreness, and the rest of the day is going to be a struggle.
But what is muscle soreness?
What does it represent?
And more importantly, how on earth can you get it to stop?
In this article, we are going to attempt to answer these questions and help you gain a better understanding of what muscle soreness is, and how you can alleviate it after a workout.
Myth: Muscle Soreness is an indication of a good workout
Before we get started, it is important to address a common misconception surrounding muscle soreness.
A lot of people seem to be of the opinion that if you’re not in severe agony after a workout then you haven’t worked hard enough.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. Muscle soreness should be an accepted side effect rather than a goal!
To be fair, it is a confusing concept. To some extent, muscle soreness is an indication of hard work.
You don’t get aching legs for three days if you haven’t exercised.
However, it is possible to train at a high intensity without any muscle soreness. Obviously, this is the preferred result.
If you are not hampered by sore muscles, you would be able to train the next day without being hindered in any way.
To really understand why muscle soreness isn’t an indication of a good workout, we need to examine the difference between muscle soreness and muscle fatigue.
The Difference between Muscle Soreness and Muscle Fatigue
Whenever you exercise, you are contracting the fibres that make up your muscles. Each contraction causes tiny microtears in the muscle fibres.
The harder you train, the more microtears are caused.
After a workout, your body uses protein to repair these microtears in a process known as muscle protein synthesis.
Part of the repair process involves inflammation; this causes your muscles to swell and may cause some muscle soreness. Mild to moderate muscle soreness is perfectly normal and can often be mistaken for muscle fatigue.
Muscle fatigue is usually felt during a workout, as you struggle to perform that tenth rep on the bench press you’ll feel your muscles struggle.
You will find it difficult to fully contract and relax the muscles, and your exercise performance will suffer. The cause of muscle fatigue is a lot more complicated than people believe.
Causes of Muscle Fatigue
For many years, it was thought that muscle fatigue was caused by a build-up of lactic acid in the muscles, but this is now thought to be a symptom of muscle fatigue rather than a cause. Muscle fatigue is probably caused by a number of factors:
- Nervous fatigue – Muscles are controlled by nerves, when you start to train your nerves’ signaling ability may begin to tire after several repetitions. The longer you train, the less of an issue this becomes. But as most people in the gym right now would be considered rookies, nervous fatigue is definitely a common factor.
- ATP Depletion – Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the energy currency that is required for you to perform any movement. We only store a certain amount of ATP in our muscles, and the longer we exercise the more ATP gets depleted. Once we begin to run out, our muscles will begin to fatigue.
- Metabolic Build Up – As we exercise, our muscles begin to create metabolites, these are waste products produced by each muscle contraction. Potassium, chloride, lactic acid, magnesium and several others build up in the muscles and interfere with the release of calcium. This can indirectly lead to muscle fatigue.
Muscle fatigue can lead to temporary muscle soreness immediately after a workout, that burning sensation in your muscles as you perform the last two squats can hang around during your rest between sets, but for the most part it vanishes quickly.
You can also suffer from muscle fatigue the next morning, without feeling sore. Your muscles may just not be ready for another set, and you’ll tire quicker.
If you are noticing this, then you may not be fully recovering from your last workout and should assess either your workout schedule or your recovery process.
Check out this great video to learn more about the cause of muscle fatigue:
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is pain that affects the muscles after exercise.
It usually only affects people who are training for the first time.
It differs from regular muscle soreness because it is much more intense, lasts a lot longer, and can take up to 2 days before you really notice it.
Whereas regular muscle soreness occurs quite soon after a workout.
DOMS is thought to be caused by eccentric exercise, this is where you are stretching the muscle rather than contracting it.
If you were to perform a bicep curl, the eccentric part would be where you lowered the weight back down, while the concentric would be curling the weight upwards.
Intense exercise inflicted upon unprepared muscles causes micro trauma.
Micro tears or micro trauma in the muscle is necessary for muscle growth, but too much can cause the pain, inflammation, and stiffness that is associated with DOMS. The exact cause of DOMS is still up for debate though.
If you are just starting back in the gym after a long lay off, then DOMS is pretty much unavoidable, just read the section marked “How to treat muscle soreness” and deal with it.
If, however, you are experiencing DOMS several months into a training program, this could be a sign that you are overtraining.
What is Overtraining?
If you are exercising more often than your body can handle, then you are overtraining.
There are many ways to mitigate overtraining. Elite athletes are able to train almost every day because their fitness and strength allows them to.
So, the longer you have been training for, the more you are able to train each week.
But mostly, it is down to your recovery strategies.
If you are sleeping over eight hours each night, your diet is high in protein, and you lead a mostly stress-free life, then your body will be able to recover faster, and overtraining is less likely to occur.
There are many symptoms of DOMS that you can look out for. Depression/anxiety can often be a sign, as can irritability. Poor sleep is a big sign, as is persistent fatigue, and then there is of course DOMS.
How to prevent excessive muscle soreness
Preventing excessive muscle soreness is a balancing act.
As explained earlier, you want to be training at a high enough intensity that your body needs to recover and repair. This is the only way that muscles will grow.
However, training too hard can be counterproductive.
If your muscles are sore the next day then you may not be able to train at all, so instead of two intense sessions you’ve ended up with one very intense session and a wasted day.
The issue is that it’s not always easy to know when you’re pushing your body too far, or not far enough.
It’s a narrow line to walk, but a good way to manage your training is to plan it out in advance and stick to the plan.
Let’s say that you are looking to improve your bench press.
You usually can lift 100kg for six reps, a sensible way to increase your bench would be to either attempt to raise the number of reps to seven or eight. Alternatively, you could increase the weight to 105kg.
A 5% increase in weight is going to push your muscles a lot. But nowhere near as much as a 10% increase in weight would.
That could lead to poor form, or failure. If you can increase the weight you are lifting by 10% then you were probably not lifting enough in the first place.
Bringing a notepad and pen to the gym floor with you is a great way to ensure that your training stays intense but doesn’t become too intense.
If you use the notepad to analyse your sessions, you may also be able to see the signs of overtraining well before you would normally.
Giving each set a rating out of ten for effort (zero being easy ten being almost impossible) can help you gauge how hard you are working.
Managing your training is very important.
If you want your muscles to grow, then you are going to need to concentrate on working them eccentrically, increasing the load they lift, and training to fatigue.
But trying to do all of this in one session is going to lead to a lot of muscle soreness.
Using a notepad can help you to spread out the more extreme parts of a training program, which helps balance the program out and will allow you to train at peak efficiency without getting injured.
But it’s not just about how you train, it’s also about how you recover.
If your recovery is perfect, then you’ll be able to train at a higher intensity without succumbing to muscle soreness or even overtraining.
Sleeping eight hours or more each night is vital. Studies have shown that the more you sleep, the better your body recovers, and the better you can perform both physically and mentally .
That is why many professional sports teams have invested heavily into state of the art bedrooms for their players to nap in before and after training.
Sleep will help your body to produce enough of the necessary hormones it needs to function at a high level.
For example, a lack of sleep can lead to a severe drop in testosterone production . Testosterone is a vital part of muscle protein synthesis and the recovery of muscle fibres.
You also need to examine your relationship with stress, long-term stress can lead to elevated cortisol levels, which again can affect your production of other hormones.
For example, cortisol can attack the testes in men, and negatively affect testosterone production.
Stress can also lead to insomnia, which in turn will affect testosterone levels, and ultimately recovery.
Bad recovery can lead to increased muscle soreness and even DOMS.
How to treat muscle soreness
Now that we know what can cause muscle soreness and you have an idea of how to avoid it, let’s take a look at how you can treat muscle soreness. This can also help treat DOMS, though the results may not be that noticeable as DOMS is much more severe.
1. Increase your protein intake
This won’t reduce any pain or inflammation, but increasing your protein intake can help your body repair damaged muscle fibres.
There is a limit to how much protein you need though, if your diet is already very high in protein then additional protein will be of no consequence.
Most people tend to not consume enough protein though, so bear this in mind.
2. Assess your calorie intake
This is a tricky one, but if you want to fully recover from exercise, you are best off in a calorie surplus.
This is why bodybuilders go through “bulking”.
Eating more calories than you burn allows you to repair your muscles and grow.
However, if you are looking to lose weight then you need to be in a calorie deficit.
In which case, keep your protein high and accept that your muscles may be a little sore.
3. Take a day off
This all depends on how often you are currently training.
If you train once per week, then muscle soreness is not a good enough excuse to skip a session.
But if you train five or more times a week, then muscle soreness may be an indication that you are overtraining. Take an additional day off to recover and see if this improves matters.
Remember, it’s about quality not quantity.
4. Consider taking an aspirin to reduce inflammation
Muscle soreness is partly caused by inflammation, so an anti-inflammatory is a good idea.
Remember though that inflammation is responsible for muscle growth.
Some inflammation is good, too much is problematic.
If your muscle soreness is affecting your day to day life, then taking an aspirin may be helpful.
5. Increase your caffeine intake
Caffeine works by blocking pain temporarily, it is why you are able to exercise harder when you’ve taken a lot of caffeine pre-workout.
But it can also help with post exercise soreness.
A study in 2013 found that taking caffeine for several days after a workout led to a marked reduction in the perception of pain from DOMS .
Your muscles will be just as inflamed as ever, but you’ll feel it less and be able to move around more, which is good because …
6. Get your steps in
Even though you are going to be feeling stiff and in pain, it is actually best to move around more. Heading to the gym is a bad idea, but walking or light exercise can be beneficial.
Exercising the muscles in question can lead to an increase in blood being delivered to the muscles, which can speed up the recovery process.
7. Assess your training program for the future
If you are constantly feeling muscle soreness the day after a workout, then the problem could be that your program is too intense for your body to follow.
This often happens when guys who are not taking steroids follow the training programs of professional bodybuilders (who are).
Taking steroids allows you to train harder and recover faster, so 3 hour workouts are realistic.
An unassisted lifter could never copy those programs without hurting themselves. Muscle soreness is an indication of that.
8. Increase your sleep
The more you sleep, the better you will recover from exercise.
As we mentioned above, professional athletes take their sleep very seriously, and you should too. Eight to ten hours per night will leave you fully recovered, and you should feel less sore post workout.
9. Try yoga
Studies have shown that yoga can reduce stress, which we know is often responsible for delayed recovery from exercise.
Yoga also gently works your muscles, delivering blood to the damaged muscle fibres. It is therefore no surprise that there is evidence that yoga can reduce muscle soreness .
10. Use a foam roller
Foam rollers are often overrated as tools of recovery, there is little evidence that they can improve flexibility (a common claim), and they are not able to prevent muscle soreness (another common claim).
However, there is evidence that they can reduce muscle soreness and muscle fatigue post exercise .
Muscle soreness is often a harmless side effect of training that quickly goes away, but it can also be the first symptom of overtraining, and may be caused by bad recovery, poor form during training, and an ill-thought out training program.
Follow our advice on how to treat it, but look at both your home life and your training plan to see whether your muscle soreness could be avoided in the future.