If you've worked out to the point that you have leg muscles so sore you can't walk, it's time for some "good news, bad news." The bad news is that you're going to need to take a break from heavy workouts while your legs recover. If you've overdone it to the point of injury, you might even need medical attention. But the good news is that, once you've recovered, you'll be in a great place to make gains without all that soreness if you just dial back your workout intensity a bit.
Although some mild soreness is normal after a tough workout, being in so much pain that you can hardly walk is a sure sign that you've overdone it, perhaps to the point of injury.
Sore Thighs After Exercise
A certain amount of post-workout soreness, also known as delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, is normal if you start a new workout or ramp up the intensity of your existing workouts. DOMS is also common if your workouts emphasize jumping exercises or eccentric movements, both of which stress your muscle as it lengthens under load. (For example, in a biceps curl, the eccentric movement is when you lower the weight.)
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But the "normal" DOMS shouldn't leave you in so much pain you can hardly walk. In a typical case, it'll come on 12 to 24 hours after your workout. You may be uncomfortable while DOMS symptoms are present, but you won't be debilitated and the soreness should fade within three to five days.
Although the mechanism behind DOMS still isn't entirely understood, it's believed to be due to microscopic tears in your muscle fibers.
Severe Soreness Could Be Rhabdomyolysis
If you're sore to the point of hardly being able to walk, there's a chance you might have a potentially life-threatening condition known as rhabdomyolysis, in which muscle protein breaks down and leaks into your blood. Don't panic, but do keep an eye out for trademark symptoms of "rhabdo," including dark urine, swelling in your limbs or soreness that gets worse instead of better. If you notice any of these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.
In a 2017 article in the New Zealand journal Sports Medicine, researchers point out that DOMS is actually a very mild form of rhabdomyolysis.
Are You Injured?
Severe thigh pain after a workout could also be a sign that you're injured. In addition to sharp, localized pain instead of a generalized soreness, other symptoms of a strain injury to your thigh muscle may include swelling, limited range of motion, weakness in the muscle and redness or bruising. In severe cases, you may even hear a pop when the injury occurs.
Mild strains can generally be treated at home using the RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevate) protocol, but more serious strains should be evaluated by a doctor and could even require physical therapy or surgery to repair.
Recovering From Sore Thighs
If you're not injured, but still "stuck" with thigh pain after a gym workout, doing more heavy workouts could easily lead to injury. Instead, give the heavy workouts a skip and try some scientifically proven remedies. According to a 2018 systematic review published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology, several treatments produce a decrease in magnitude of DOMS:
- Active recovery: Do a light, easy workout to get your blood pumping and body moving.
- Massage: Massage was found to be the most effective method for reducing DOMS.
- Compression garments: These can include compression tights or even whole-body compression garments.
- Immersion and contrast water therapy: This involves immersion in cold water or alternating cold and warm immersion.
- Cryotherapy: You need special equipment to administer this cold-based therapy.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine Research also found that the immediate application of heat helped reduce post-workout thigh pain from doing squats. Moist heat was the most effective and fastest-acting (two hours of application), but an eight-hour application of dry heat was also effective to a lesser extent.
Preventing Soreness in Future Workouts
Here's a little more good news: You don't have to work out to the point of debilitating soreness in order to make gains in the gym. In fact, as satisfying as it may be to know you've worked out to the point of being really sore, being forced to take extended recovery time between workouts can actually set you back overall.
Instead, follow the advice of Cleveland Clinic sports medicine doctor Dominic King by ramping up a new workout slowly. This gives your body a chance to adapt to the new demands you're placing on it. Beyond that, stay hydrated before, during and after your workouts; warm up before you work out and cool down after; and stretch before and after you work out.
Easy Thigh Stretches
The jury's still out about just how effective pre- and post-workout stretching is to reduce muscle soreness. A 2011 systematic review published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found that combined pre- and post-workout stretching was more effective than just one or the other. Together, the two produced a statistically significant, although small, improvement in post-workout soreness.
Even though stretching may not have a massive effect on post-workout soreness, it can still be beneficial, and it's also the best way to build your flexibility, which in turn can help you avoid injury. Consider adding two stretches before and after your workouts: The first targets your quadriceps, the large muscle group in the front of your thigh, while the second targets your hamstrings, the large muscle group in the back of your thigh:
- Stand near a wall or sturdy piece of furniture/equipment that you can use for support if necessary.
- Bend your right knee and grasp your right ankle in your right hand.
- Keep your right knee pointing down and close to your other leg as you gently pull your right ankle toward your glute on that side.
- Press your hips gently forward to increase the stretch in your right thigh.
- Hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds and be sure to stretch the other leg as well.
If you can't quite grab your ankle, don't worry: You're not alone. Try looping a yoga strap or light towel around your ankle as a handhold.
- Stagger your feet, placing one forward and the other back.
- Keep your front leg straight as you bend the knee of your back leg, sitting back as if you were doing a squat. You should feel the stretch in the back of your thigh.
- Hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. Make sure to stretch the other leg too.
- International Sports Sciences Association: Is DOMS Cramping Your Client's Style?
- ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: Sore and More
- Sports Medicine: Perspectives on Exertional Rhabdomyolysis
- MedlinePlus: Rhabdomyolysis
- Mayo Clinic: Muscle Strains
- Cleveland Clinic: Is There Such a Thing as ‘Good Pain’ and When Should You Listen to Your Body?
- Frontiers in Physiology: An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-Exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue and Inflammation
- Journal of Clinical Medicine Research: Moist Heat or Dry Heat for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
- Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: Stretching to Prevent or Reduce Muscle Soreness After Exercise