Anytime you begin a new exercise routine or add on heavier weights to your lifting workouts, you are likely to experience sore muscles. The body pain you feel after your first day at the gym is your body's response to the heavy demands you're placing on your muscles. Although it may feel like you'll never again be able to get up and down out of a chair without issue, rest assured your muscle soreness will dissipate within a few days.
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After a tough workout, muscle soreness hits its peak approximately two or three days later and should subside within a week.
Why You Get Sore Muscles
When you're sore after a workout, the pain is due to delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. Unlike acute soreness, which happens while you're exercising, DOMS begins 12 to 24 hours after hitting the gym and peaks on the second or third day. DOMS results from microscopic tears to muscles and the surrounding connective tissues. Once DOMS has peaked, symptoms should begin to subside within seven days as the muscle repairs itself.
DOMS can affect both recreational athletes trying out a new exercise, as well as seasoned athletes performing exercises outside their normal routine. The severity of DOMS depends on the intensity and duration of the exercise. It tends to be more pronounced following eccentric muscle contractions, when the muscle is lengthened. Additionally, the longer and tougher your workout, the more intense DOMS will be.
Read more: My Muscle Hurts Two Days After a Workout
It’s Not the Lactic Acid
One common misconception is that lactic acid buildup in the muscles is to blame for muscle soreness. Lactic acid, or lactate, is a small molecule that rises to high levels during intense exercise. Until around the 1970s, the belief was that lactic acid was a waste product that needed to be eliminated from the body.
However, according to Dr. George Brooks, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California at Berkeley, lactate is actually an energy source produced by muscle cells. He and his team of researchers learned that lactate helps to fuel the brain and the heart. It even plays a role in the repair process following an injury or an illness. Moreover, lactic acid leaves the blood and muscles within an hour after intense exercise — much more quickly than the DOMS you'll experience.
Read more: Muscle Fatigue & Soreness From Lactic Acid
Preventing Sore Muscles
Although you might not be able to completely avoid being sore after a workout, there are ways to mitigate the pain. A proper cool down and stretching routine is one way to limit DOMS, encourage faster muscle recovery and promote muscle length. The cool down can include light cardiovascular activity such as jogging, cycling, swimming or use of an elliptical machine.
When your muscles are still warm and pliable, you can also perform static stretching. Post-workout stretches can help increase your range of motion and flexibility, contributing to proper form in any given exercise. In addition, greater flexibility can translate to decreased risk of injury and tendon overload.
Avoid a full cool down if you have sustained an injury, such as a muscle or joint strain. Stretching may cause increased blood flow to the injured body part, possibly making the injury worse. Instead, rest the affected area and stretch only those areas that are injury free.
Read more: 7 Types of Stretching Exercises
BCAAs for Recovery
Within the body, there are 20 different amino acids that comprise thousands of proteins. Of these 20, nine are "essential" amino acids that cannot be made in the body and must be consumed through your diet. Furthermore, three of those nine are BCAAs: leucine, isoleucine and valine.
There's some evidence that ingesting branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) before and after a workout can assist with muscle recovery. BCAAs may help to decrease muscle damage leading to DOMS. You can find BCAAs in protein-rich foods such as eggs, meat and dairy, as well as in supplements — typically sold in powder form to be mixed with water.
When to See a Doctor
Being sore after a workout might be painful, but it's not necessarily a bad thing. The DOMS you experience is a sign you've taxed the muscles, which in turn must work to rebuild muscle fibers and grow stronger. As long as you're still able to carry on most daily activities without issue, you can use rest, ice, compression and elevation (the RICE treatment approach) to speed your recovery.
However, take note of any indicators that it might be time to see a doctor, such as:
- Muscle soreness that lasts more than a week
- Acute pain when performing everyday tasks
- Numbness, bruising or swelling at the injury site
- Inability to fully move your arms or legs
- Signs of infection, such as redness, swelling or high fever
- Difficulty breathing
Your doctor can run the appropriate tests to evaluate your muscle soreness and recommend a course of treatment. The sooner you get diagnosed, the sooner you can get back to training while also preventing further harm to your muscles.
Exercise and Weight Loss
If your goal is to lose weight through exercise, be patient with your body. Expect some amount of body pain after your first day at the gym and after the next several workouts. Remember, your body is adapting to a new exercise routine.
You can also expect that the numbers on the scale might not move initially. As you stress your muscles, the resulting micro-trauma and inflammation around your muscles may cause temporary water weight gain. Because of the damage to your muscles, your body retains water to heal the area.
Your body also converts glycogen to glucose to provide energy to muscles. As you increase the demand on your muscles, your body may store up glycogen to help fuel your workouts. Throughout this process of energizing your muscles, glycogen binds with water — and you may see additional water retention as a result.
However, the stronger and more efficient your muscles become, the less glycogen they will need for energy output. As a result, your water retention eventually will decrease. With consistency and a balanced, healthy diet, you can expect to see weight loss within a few weeks of starting your workout routine.
- Right as Rain by UW Medicine: This Is Why You Have Sore Muscles Two Days After You Work Out
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: Muscle Soreness and Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness
- Sports Illustrated: Debunking the Myths About Lactic Acid, Fatigue and Recovery
- Berkeley News: Rehabilitating Lactate: From Poison to Cure
- ScienceDirect: Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: Concentric and Eccentric: Muscle Contraction or Exercise?
- BodyBuilding.com: Ask The Ripped Dude: What Are the Best Post-Workout Static Stretches?
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: Branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplementation Does Not Enhance Athletic Performance but Affects Muscle Recovery and the Immune System
- Healthline: 5 Proven Benefits of BCAAs (Branched-Chain Amino Acids)
- Orlando Health: My Muscle Hurts. Should I Go to the Doctor?
- University of Virginia Health System: How Sore Is Too Sore? Avoiding Post-Workout Soreness and Rhabdomyolysis