Why Do My Muscles Hurt After Lifting Weights?

Waking up the day after a tough workout with aching muscles is no fun. You may experience delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) — a common and generally benign aftereffect — especially if you're new to lifting weights. While there's no remedy for muscle soreness after lifting, you can do a few things to lessen the discomfort, and you can prevent it in the future by adjusting your workout.

Prevent muscle soreness by increasing your strength-training volume gradually. (Image: Vasyl Dolmatov/iStock/GettyImages)

Tip

Weightlifting damages the muscle fibers, which can cause soreness for a few days after your workout.

Soreness After Weight Training

Resistance training causes microscopic tears to muscle fibers. This is a good thing. When the muscle fibers heal, they adapt to the stimulus, becoming stronger and bigger. As you continue to increase the challenge of your workout, your muscles continue to go through the damage/recovery cycle.

As with any damage to soft tissues, this causes some soreness. It's called delayed-onset muscle soreness because it typically does not show up until 24 to 48 hours after the workout. Other symptoms you may experience along with muscle soreness include muscle stiffness, tenderness to the touch, reduced range of motion, muscle weakness and localized swelling.

Severity of DOMS

How intense your symptoms of DOMS are usually correlates to the intensity of your workout. The harder you work out, the more damage you do to your muscles, thus the potential for more severe symptoms.

DOMS also tends to occur more when you first start working out. Body pain after your first gym day is completely normal; people who are deconditioned and begin a strength-training program often experience DOMS for at least the first session or two, if not longer. It can also happen after cardiovascular exercises such as running and hiking.

More conditioned exercisers usually experience DOMS less frequently. However, if they significantly increase the intensity of their workout or add a new movement that their muscles are not used to, they can experience DOMS.

DOMS is highly individual. Some people hardly ever experience it even though they work out vigorously, while others may experience it frequently, even after moderate-intensity workouts. Genetics as well as gender play roles in DOMS; because women have more of the hormone estrogen, they may be less susceptible to muscle damage, and thus less prone to experiencing muscle soreness after weight training. However more research is needed to confirm this.

Treating Muscle Soreness

There is no way to make DOMS go away. You may be able to find relief by taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication, but that is temporary relief. Until your muscles have healed, you will still feel some soreness for up to five days postworkout.

You can find relief in other ways, including:

  • Light stretching and mobility exercises
  • Cardio exercise to warm the muscles
  • Applying heat to sore, stiff muscles
  • Applying ice to localized swelling
  • Massage

Rest is the most important part of recovery. Aside from some cardio and stretching, allow the muscles to heal before you strength train the afflicted muscle group again. Working out sore muscles can increase pain and lead to overtraining, which can cause more severe symptoms and keep you from reaching your goals.

Preventing Muscle Soreness After Lifting

You might hear people say that if they aren't sore after a workout, they feel as if they didn't work hard enough or that the workout was ineffective: No pain, no gain. But that's just not true or necessary. You can get results from weight training without feeling like you got run over by a truck the day after your workouts.

Although some soreness is inevitable in the beginning, you can drastically reduce it by doing the following:

Start out slowly: People are often gung-ho when they start a workout, wanting to jump right in and see results quickly. Then they experience DOMS and get put off by exercise. Instead, do a little bit at first, then a little bit more each session. If you're taking a class, working out with friends or working with a personal trainer, don't let anyone push you to do too much when you're first starting out. Taking things slowly will make a major difference in the amount of soreness you'll feel.

Build gradually: When you have been working out for a month or so, begin to add intensity and increase your weights. But do it gradually. Not only can adding too much weight too soon lead to DOMS, but it can also lead to muscle strains and pulls. A good rule of thumb is not to increase the weight you are lifting more than 10 percent at a time.

Warm up: Working out with cold muscles may increase muscle soreness after lifting. Jog, ride a stationary bicycle or jump rope for five to 10 minutes before you start your lifting routine.

Stretch before and after: Keeping the muscles pliable and flexible is key to preventing and relieving DOMS as well as for preventing other injuries. Before your workout, do some dynamic stretches for the body parts you'll be working, such as arm circles for your shoulders and butt kicks for your quads. After your workout, do some longer-held stretches, such as a standing quad stretch and triceps stretch.

Exercising With DOMS

You can exercise with DOMS, but you should avoid strength training the affected muscle groups until the soreness has subsided. Making a habit of training muscle groups that have not fully recovered can lead to overtraining, which can actually make you weaker.

If your muscle soreness is persistent or accompanied by any or all of the following symptoms, your problem may not be a simple case of DOMS:

  • Elevated resting heart rate
  • Frequent infections
  • Frequent injuries
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Lack of motivation
  • Insomnia
  • Low appetite
  • Weight loss

If you believe you have overtraining syndrome, you should take a break or at least reduce your training volume. You should also make sure that you are getting quality sleep and proper nutrition and hydration. See your doctor to determine whether you have any nutrient deficiencies that may be affecting your body's ability to recover.

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