When you lift weights, you're bound to experience sore muscles. Whether you're new to the sport or you've taken the amount you lift to the next level, your muscles respond by repairing the microscopic tears that lifting weights causes — and that will leave you saying, "I'm sore!" frequently.
Whether you should continue to lift weights if your muscles are sore depends on the type of pain and how much rest time your muscles get.
Wait 48 hours between weightlifting sessions that target the same muscle groups. Not only does this allow enough time for the soreness to start to dissipate, but it also helps prevent damage to the muscles and surrounding tendons, bones and cartilage.
Understanding Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness
Lifting weights can make your muscles feel sore right away — it might feel like your leg muscles are so sore you can't walk. This is known as acute muscle soreness, and it typically occurs within about 12 hours. However, when the pain peaks 48 to 72 hours later, that's known as delayed-onset muscle soreness.
Delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, is most likely to occur when you start a new type of exercise or work harder than normal, such as when you go up in the amount of weight that you're lifting.
In the hours and days after this lifting session, your muscles are repairing themselves from the microscopic damage you did while lifting those weights. Once repaired, they will strengthen and come back bigger and better than ever.
Feeling sore is a part of building muscle. However, you can lessen the amount of soreness you experience by warming up properly to improve blood flow to the muscles, drinking enough water and waiting 48 hours before you attack a particular muscle group again.
Read more: Foods that Help Heal Muscles
Lifting Weights When Sore
The first rule of thumb in lifting weights is to give any muscle group 48 hours to recover after they've been working. For example, if you work your legs on Monday, stick to exercising the upper body on Tuesday and go back to your legs only on Wednesday or later in the week. This also allows time for the muscle soreness to dissipate.
If you focus on the same muscles day after day, you risk doing actual damage to the muscles as well as the tendons, bones and cartilage that surround them, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. In extreme cases, overtaxing the muscles could cause proteins to be released into the bloodstream, leading to the kidneys shutting down.
Additionally, too much stress on the tendons could lead to tendinitis, while overstressing the bones could lead to pain and, eventually, stress fractures. Finally, too much stress on the cartilage, which is the slippery tissue in your joints that lets the bones move smoothly in tandem, could lead to swelling, pain and fluid in the joint.
Read more: How to Ease Muscle Soreness After a Workout
Differentiating Between Soreness and Pain
Muscle soreness is a temporary condition, and the pain will diminish over time. However, if you experience muscle pain that's not going away with rest, affects your life outside of fitness or sports — such as walking or sleeping — or is getting worse rather than improving, make an appointment with a physician. In this case, take a break from lifting weights until you have an answer for how you're feeling.
Additionally, if you feel like you're developing muscle weakness or if you're experiencing numbness or tingling in a muscle, see a health care provider. This could indicate that you're developing nerve problems, as Johns Hopkins Medicine points out.
How to Relieve Sore Muscles
The only thing that will truly stop your complaints about soreness after lifting weights is giving your muscles time to rest. However, a few techniques can help the muscles feel a bit better. These include massage, gentle stretching, icing the painful muscles for 20 minutes at a time and taking over-the-counter painkillers, such as ibuprofen. Keep moving the affected area, even if you're not exercising, to avoid developing stiffness.
Applying heat to the sore muscles can temporarily soothe the pain by improving blood flow to the area. However, it should only be used for about 10 minutes at a time because the heat can also increase swelling and inflammation.
Foam rolling also helps reduce the pain of sore muscles, according to a small study published in January 2015 in the Journal of Athletic Training. To use a foam roller most effectively, spend 20 minutes on it immediately after exercise and then another 20 minutes targeting the sore muscles every 24 hours.
Prevent Sore Muscles
You can't always avoid sore muscles, but you can take measures to prevent the soreness. While it's tempting to lift as much weight as possible while strength-training, you should start slowly and increase the amount of weight you lift a little bit at a time. When you lift too much, you run the risk of injuring yourself.
Dehydration plays a role in the onset of muscle cramps, so be sure to drink enough water before, during and after a workout.
- Drink 16 ounces two to three hours before exercise and then another 8 ounces about 15 minutes before your workout
- During a workout, drink 4 ounces of fluid every 15 to 20 minutes, which is equal to about two to three large gulps.
- After you're done, drink 16 to 20 ounces of fluid for every pound you lost during a workout. Stick to water unless you're exercising for longer than 60 minutes. In that case, add a sports drink to maintain electrolyte levels.
Doing a proper warm-up also helps prevents sore muscles, according to a study published in December 2012 in the Journal of Human Kinetics. Researchers looked at how 20 minutes of a warm-up on an ergometer prior to strength training affected muscle soreness, particularly in the central muscle region.
The results of this study reiterated the findings of earlier research published in 2007 in the Australian Journal of Physiotherapy, which determined that warming up before exercise reduced the effects of muscle soreness 48 hours after the workout.
Once you're done exercising, don't forget to stretch your muscles. During your workout sessions, your muscles become relaxed and flexible. Stretching circulates blood away from the muscles, which may aid in recovery.
- American Academy of Family Physicians: "Sore Muscles From Exercise"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "'Good Pain' Versus 'Bad Pain' for Athletes"
- St. Louis Children's Hospital: "Solutions for Sore Muscles"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Rhabdo: A Rare But Serious Complication of… Exercise"
- Journal of Athletic Training: "Foam Rolling for Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness and Recovery of Dynamic Performance Measures"
- MedlinePlus: "Muscle Cramps"
- National Collegiate Athletic Association: "How to Maximize Performance Hydration"
- Journal of Human Kinetics: "The Effect of Warm-Up and Cool-Down Exercise on Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness in the Quadriceps Muscle: A Randomized Controlled Trial"
- Australian Journal of Physiotherapy: "Warm-up Reduces Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness but Cool-Down Does Not: A Randomised Controlled Trial"