You may have noticed your muscles feeling stiff and sore 24 to 48 hours after your workout. This type of soreness, called delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, occurs in trained athletes and beginners alike. While DOMS is a natural response to the stress you've put on your body through exercise, pushing through the pain with further lifting may only make the soreness worse and lead to further complications and injury.
Causes of Muscle Soreness
When you begin a new exercise program or increase the intensity, duration or frequency of your workout, you may experience DOMS. The condition is likely caused by tiny tears in your muscle fibers, over-stretching of the muscles and inflammation. When you are weight lifting, the downward, or eccentric, phase of each lift stretches out the muscle. For example, when performing a biceps curl, you shorten the muscle as you lift the weight and lengthen it as you lower the weight. Repetitive eccentric contractions cause greater soreness, so weight lifters are particularly prone to DOMS.
To Lift or Not to Lift
Deciding whether or not to lift with sore muscles depends on the severity of your discomfort. Weight lifting with only mild soreness can help provide temporary relief, while lifting with severe soreness can cause you to lift with poor form, putting excess stress on your joints and increasing your chances of injury. Continually exercising without adequate rest and recovery time can lead to over-training, a condition characterized by reduced athletic performance, mood disturbances, insomnia, fatigue, loss of appetite and increased susceptibility to illness.
Alternative Exercise Options
If you plan to lift when experiencing muscle soreness, focus on low-intensity exercises such as core training or light cardio. If the soreness is relegated to a certain area of muscle group, such as your arms or upper body, feel free to target your leg muscles instead. Adapt your lifting exercises to minimize the eccentric portion of the lift. For example, during biceps curls, only lower the weights until your forearms are parallel with the floor instead of all the way down. By reducing muscle lengthening, you'll reduce the muscle damage that causes or worsens DOMS.
Nearly all athletes experience soreness from time to time, but you can design your lifting program to help minimize the condition and the effect it has on your time in the gym. Organize your lifting schedule to allow 48 to 72 hours of rest time for each muscle group between sessions. Should you experience soreness in one muscle group, you'll be working other muscle groups for the next couple of days anyways. Ease in to new activities gradually. After each lifting workout, have a carbohydrate- and protein-rich snack to help jump start the muscle recovery process.