It's not unusual to find yourself a little sore after a tough workout, especially if you've just added new exercises to your routine; it takes your body some time to adapt to the new stresses you're putting on it. In general, it's best to wait until your muscle soreness has faded before going full-bore in your workouts again, although a light workout may help you overcome the effects of delayed-onset muscle soreness.
In general, doing a light workout is all right when you have delayed-onset muscle soreness, and it might even help soothe the symptoms. However, you should avoid heavy lifting when sore until the soreness has faded, and steer clear of anything that causes increased pain.
The Low-Down on DOMS
Delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, is the "typical" muscle soreness that you'll often experience after a tough workout. Although scientists have yet to fully understand the mechanism behind DOMS, it's believed to be caused by tiny tears in your muscle fibers.
But that's not as bad as it might sound: Rebuilding those tears is a natural part of your body's recovery process. Just try thinking of lifting workouts as a sort of "deconstruction" process, positioning your body to reconstruct an even better you. That reconstruction process takes place during the recovery period between workouts.
DOMS typically comes on within 12 to 24 hours of a workout, and usually fades within about three days. In severe cases, it might last a little longer, but if your muscle soreness gets worse instead of better and if it's accompanied by swelling of your limbs or dark urine, you should see your doctor immediately. You might have rhabdomyolysis, a potentially life-threatening condition that can also result in permanent kidney damage.
Read more: How to Ease Muscle Soreness After a Workout
Working Out With Sore Muscles
According to a systematic review published in a 2018 issue of the journal Frontiers in Physiology, active recovery was one of several methods that created a decrease in the magnitude of exercise-induced DOMS.
The definition of an "active recovery" workout depends largely on your fitness level; think light and easy. For most people, this could mean things like lifting light weights, going for a walk or taking a mellow bike ride. If you're a serious athlete, your version of "light" might be more challenging than that of a weekend warrior. Ultimately, let your body be your guide and stick to workouts that don't make the soreness worse.
A Basic Weightlifting Strategy
For those just getting started with weightlifting, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans provides a good baseline to aim for: Do total-body muscle-strengthening workouts at least twice a week.
Regardless of your levels of soreness, those weightlifting workouts should be separated by at least one full day to let your muscles recover. And while a certain amount of soreness is typical when you first start a workout, it should fade fairly quickly if you're not hitting it too hard, too soon — so sticking to those guidelines means you might not need to worry at all about lifting when you're sore.
Consider Weightlifting Splits
If you're serious about weightlifting and want to build more recovery time into your workout schedule, consider switching to a split training plan, which focuses on a different set of muscles each day. That way, the muscles you just worked have a chance to recover, while you get the fun, the endorphin rush and the satisfaction of lifting on consecutive days.
There are many ways to split up your workouts. If you're new to the concept, consider an upper/lower body split, which might look like this:
- Monday: Upper-body muscles
- Tuesday: Lower-body muscles
- Wednesday: Rest
- Thursday: Upper-body muscles
- Friday: Lower-body muscles
- Saturday and Sunday: Rest
Note that you're still fulfilling the "baseline" goal of working each muscle group twice a week while giving yourself the luxury of focusing more on each muscle group. If you really get into bodybuilding or just can't get enough of the gym, you might progress to a more focused push/pull/legs split:
- Monday: Pushing muscles (chest and triceps)
- Tuesday: Pulling muscles (back and biceps)
- Wednesday: Leg muscles
- Thursday: Pushing muscles
- Friday: Pulling muscles
- Saturday: Leg muscles
- Sunday: Rest
Doing Cardio With DOMS
What if cardio is what caused your DOMS or your legs are sore from weightlifting and you want to do cardio like cycling or going for a run? The same general rule applies: A light cardio workout might help relieve your soreness. Meanwhile, if the soreness is mild and doesn't interfere with, or become worsened by, your workout, you can give your normal workout a try and see how it feels. If working out makes the soreness worse, stop.
You can also seek cardio exercises that work muscles that aren't sore. If your upper body is sore, you can still do almost anything with your legs. If your legs are sore, that makes your cardio options more challenging — but you could still try hand-cycling, using a rope-climbing machine or even paddling in a canoe for a fun upper-body workout that still offers all the benefits of cardiovascular activity.
Guidelines for a Safe Workout
You should always take the time to warm up, cool down and stretch as part of any workout, but those precautions become especially important if you're thinking of working out with sore muscles.
To warm up, spend five or 10 minutes on gentle activity with the same muscles you're about to work out. So, if you're going to be working your legs in the weight room, you could walk or jog lightly on a treadmill to warm up. If you're going to be working your chest muscles, you could warm up with light calisthenics or by using an elliptical trainer with moving handlebars that you can push and pull.
Warming up allows your body to ease into the changes necessary for a serious workout, including elevated heart rate, increased temperature and more blood flow to your muscles — and it's a key practice that may help reduce post-workout soreness. Cooling down is essentially the same thing in reverse: a gentle period of activity that lets your body gradually recover to resting heart rate and blood pressure.
Monitor Your Intensity
It may be tempting to chase muscle soreness as the badge of a successful workout. But you don't have to push yourself to the point of debilitating soreness to reap the benefits of working out with weights. In fact, working until you're sore can have a detrimental effect on your gains by delaying your next workout or even causing you to adopt poor lifting technique to compensate for the soreness.
The good news is that limiting your soreness is often as easy as monitoring your intensity in the weight room. If you're starting something new, ramp up the intensity slowly as you get an idea of how your body responds. That'll make it easier to find a level that's challenging without leaving you unduly sore.
- ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: Sore and More
- MedlinePlus: Rhabdomyolysis
- Frontiers in Physiology: An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-Exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue and Inflammation
- University of Virginia Health System: How Sore Is Too Sore?
- Health.gov: Dietary Guidelines, 2015-2020: Appendix 1. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans
- Bodybuilding.com: The Ultimate Guide to an Effective Training Split
- Mayo Clinic: Aerobic Exercise: How to Warm Up and Cool Down
- International Sports Sciences Association: Is DOMS Cramping Your Client's Style?