When you work out, you want to feel the burn — but sometimes you can overdo it. Overworking your abs can cause symptoms that can be unpleasant or painful. Muscle soreness, spasms and cramps are some of the typical negative side effects of an abs workout.
Read more: How to Ease Muscle Soreness After a Workout
Side Effects of Overworked Abs
Muscle soreness is often to be expected following a workout. According to the National Kidney Foundation, this phenomenon is known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). It occurs due to the stress placed on your muscles during exercise.
When DOMS occurs, your muscles are essentially becoming inflamed. This leads to unpleasant side effects like pain, soreness, swelling and muscle spasms.
Although DOMS can be unpleasant, it isn't actually bad — it's a completely normal part of muscle building. The symptoms it causes are actually part of the rebuilding process that helps you grow and strengthen muscles.
You're particularly likely to experience DOMS if you've just started a new type of workout program or integrated a new type of exercise into your workout routine. It also commonly occurs when you've increased the intensity of your workout or if you've repetitively performed a certain exercise without taking adequate breaks.
DOMS typically starts six to eight hours after you've exercised. It's felt as mild, uncomfortable pain that often lasts for a full day or two. However, if the pain is intense for the day or two after, you probably have overworked abs.
You should be aware that it's possible to experience symptoms that are unrelated to DOMS. For instance, if the pain in your abs suddenly occurred after a particular exercise, it's usually not DOMS. Extreme swelling and sharp or long-lasting pain are also not typical of DOMS.
Managing Bad Abs Symptoms
The negative side effects of an abs workout can be unpleasant, but they are typically manageable. According to a September 2016 review in the journal Trends in Sport Sciences, there are a variety of ways to deal with these side effects.
Popular muscle pain reduction strategies include stretching, cryotherapy and cold water immersion. Dietary supplements and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications can also help soothe your sore muscles.
If you have mild, DOMS-related symptoms, the National Kidney Foundation recommends performing gentle exercises to help relieve the soreness and pain. Light stretches will be particularly helpful in mediating the side effects of an abs workout.
Both heat and cold can also help counteract bad abs symptoms. Heating pads can be useful if you need to temporarily ease mild discomfort like soreness. However, icing your abs is better if you need to decrease the swelling and inflammation caused by overworked abs.
Johns Hopkins Medicine recommends applying an ice pack or performing an ice massage right after you finish your workout. You shouldn't ice for longer than 20 minutes. However, you can ice on a daily basis if you're very active.
However, the American College of Sports Medicine states that none of these pain management strategies help speed up recovery. You'll often need to consider taking a break from your workouts if you have overworked abs.
Dangers of Overworked Abs
Overworked abs can happen to anyone on occasion. However, recurring or severe muscle soreness can be harmful, causing serious injuries. It can take a long time to recover from a torn muscle. You may even injure other parts of your body if you try to exercise with an injury and push through the pain.
Harvard Health Publishing suggests that intense physical exercise can even lead to rhabdomyolysis (commonly known as rhabdo). Rhabdo is a very rare but serious condition that occurs when your muscles are so overstressed that their cells burst.
When this happens, burst muscle cells enter your bloodstream and cause issues like weakness, soreness, pain and dark urine. Rhabdo can even lead to kidney problems and hospitalization.
A March 2015 study in the_ Ochsner Journal_ indicates that any form of muscle damage can cause rhabdomyolysis. However, it's unlikely that you'll end up with rhabdo due to accidentally overworked abs.
According to an October 2018 interview with Dr. Todd Cutler of Weill Cornell Medicine, rhabdo is more likely to occur if you've suddenly gone from being a couch potato to attending high-intensity workout classes at your gym.
Essentially, rhabdo is only likely when your body isn't used to a dramatic increase in the level of exertion you're putting it through. It's important to gradually ease your body into new or more difficult forms of exercise, especially if you've overdone it in the past.
Preventing Bad Abs Symptoms
It's important to prevent recurring overworked abs. Doing so may require you to alter future workouts. Harvard Health Publishing recommends reducing the number of repetitions completed for each exercise. You may want to try fewer reps of very challenging exercises.
First, find the level of repetitions you feel comfortable performing. Then, add one extra rep at a time. Don't add more reps until you feel comfortable with each individual addition.
Alternatively, you might want to try doing fewer sets. You might be comfortable with a single set of a difficult exercise, but two sets can be what triggered the negative side effects of the abs workout.
In some cases, you might be doing just one exercise — but for a long period of time. If you're doing abdominal exercises like a plank or a hover, you might easily be able to hold it for 30 seconds at a time. One minute, on the other hand, might be out of the question.
In this case, you'll want to start out slow and gradually increase the time you're holding the exercise for. Try a 30-second plank or hover for the first few days. Then gradually add on another five seconds at a time. Slowly building up to the duration you want to achieve will help prevent overworked abs.
Is This an Emergency?
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Rhabdo: A Rare but Serious Complication of… Exercise"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Core Workout Can Cause Muscle Soreness"
- National Kidney Foundation: "Understanding Muscle Soreness – How Much Is Too Much?"
- American College of Sports Medicine: "Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "'Good Pain' Versus 'Bad Pain' for Athletes"
- Weill Cornell Medicine: "‘Rhabdo’ on the Rise"
- Oschner Journal: "Rhabdomyolysis: Pathogenesis, Diagnosis, and Treatment"
- Trends in Sport Sciences: "Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (Doms) Management: Present State of the Art"