You worked out three days ago but you're still sore. Not only is it uncomfortable, but it's also keeping you from getting back in the gym and reaching your goals. The most probable explanation is delayed-onset muscle soreness, a normal response of your muscles to being put under stress. However, depending on the specifics of the soreness, your problem could be a strained muscle.
Post-workout muscle soreness causes muscle pain for up to five days after a workout.
Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness
Almost anyone who has ever worked out has experienced delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This uncomfortable sensation of painful, achy muscles is a product of the process of breakdown and repair that your muscles undergo when you strength train.
Strength training causes microscopic tears in the muscle fibers. After your workout is finished, your body goes to work to repair the muscle damage and to adapt, growing bigger and stronger. Like any damage to your soft tissues, this is likely to cause soreness. The soreness will dissipate as the muscle fibers heal.
Duration of DOMS
Experiencing DOMS three days after a workout isn't unusual. However, leg pain after leg day isn't something you should experience after every workout. Several factors affect DOMS, its severity and how long it sticks around. These include:
- Being a beginner
- Doing a particularly strenuous workout
- Changing up your workout
Beginners Aren't So Lucky. DOMS is a kind of rite of passage. When you've never lifted weights, or when you've taken a lot of time off from weightlifting, the beginning of a program is very stressful for your muscles. The rate of muscle breakdown is higher for novices, especially during the first three weeks of a program, according to a 2014 study in PLoS One.
This means more damage and more pain that can be longer lasting. After a few more sessions, you can expect DOMS to be less intense and shorter, or you may not experience it at all.
The Role of Intensity. Even for experienced lifters, a very tough training session can leave them hobbling along with DOMS three days after a workout. Beginners who jump in a little too zealously can experience DOMS for even longer after an intense workout.
Obviously, the more strenuous the workout, the more damage done to the muscles. Remember, more muscle damage equals more soreness.
Switching Things Up
Any quality strength training program is periodized, meaning it varies in volume, intensity and technique. This prevents overtraining and plateaus in strength and muscle growth. These changes tax the muscles in different ways than they're used to, so you might experience DOMS in the beginning of your new program.
For example, if you're in a period of lower weight/higher repetition training and you transition into a period of heavier weight/lower rep training, you're more likely to feel leg pain after leg day.
Some People Are More Susceptible
You and a friend could be at the same fitness level and do the same leg workout but with very different recovery. You might be limping around the next day while your compadre feels no soreness at all. This has to do with genetics and gender.
Two genes, ACTN3 and MLCK, influence exercise performance and the amount of resultant muscle damage. People with low amounts of ACTNs may be more susceptible to muscle damage, as are those with a particular expression of the MLCK gene.
Additionally, if you're a male and your workout partner is a female, gender may explain her lack of DOMS. Women have higher levels of estrogen, a hormone that may make women less susceptible to muscle damage. Another explanation is that women and men differ in the way they perceive pain. Women go through childbirth, after all.
What to Do About DOMS
Once your workout is done, there's not much you can do about DOMS besides let it take its course. There's no way to shorten your period of soreness. You can, however, do a few things that may help relieve your discomfort:
- Light cardio exercise
- Heat therapy
- Foam rolling
- Topical pain balms
One thing you shouldn't do is work out a muscle group that's still sore. DOMS causes accompanying muscle weakness, which, combined with the pain, could set you up for injury. If you are overcompensating for weakness or soreness, you could make a detrimental error, especially if you're lifting heavy.
In addition, continually working out with DOMS can lead to overtraining. Not allowing your muscles adequate recovery can lead to reduced performance, recurring injuries, insomnia, depression, among other symptoms. Always wait until most leg-muscle soreness has subsided before doing legs again.
You can prevent DOMS in the future by being more conservative with your workouts. Don't increase weight, volume or intensity too quickly; that will lead to DOMS as well as to potential injury. Also, be sure to warm up properly before your workout. Stretch, drink plenty of water, eat a healthy diet and get plenty of rest. All these factors contribute to your performance in the weight room and how well your recovery goes.
When It's More Than DOMS
If your soreness is in one specific muscle, it could mean you just worked that muscle harder than the others — thus there's more muscle damage — or it could mean you sustained an injury. Sprains occur when muscle fibers are stretched past their capacity. Mild strains can cause muscle tears that are bigger than those sustained during normal weightlifting.
These tears will cause more pain, as well as potential swelling, bruising and pronounced muscle weakness. In the case of a severe strain, the pain and swelling can be significant, and there may be complete loss of muscle function.
If your soreness is due to a strain, but it's only mild, you can treat it at home with a course of RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation). Although this treatment is most effective in the first 48 hours after the injury, it can still help on day three.
Continue to rest the sore muscle and apply ice as often as possible for 20 minutes at a time. You can lend more support to the muscle, as well as control any swelling, by wrapping the area with an elastic bandage. Then, elevate the sore muscle at or above the level of the heart.
Muscle strains take more time to heal than DOMS. Working out again too soon after a sprain can lead to reinjury, and this time it may be worse. So take it slow. Start with some light stretching and bodyweight exercises. If that goes well, incorporate low-intensity resistance exercises. Gradually increase from there.
If your pain is more severe or it lasts for more than about five days, your injury may require medical attention.
- PLoS One: Acute Post-Exercise Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis Is Not Correlated With Resistance Training-Induced Muscle Hypertrophy in Young Men
- University of Virginia: How Sore Is Too Sore? Avoiding Post-Workout Soreness and Rhabdomyolysis
- Breaking Muscle: A Simple Guide to Periodization for Strength Training
- International Sports Sciences Association: DOMS - Why Some People Suffer More Than Others
- Coach: What Is DOMS? Plus, Effective Ways to Prevent and Relieve Aches and Pains
- Bodybuilding.com: Overtraining: Signs and Solutions!
- Harvard Health Publishing: Muscle Strain