How to Reduce Soreness After Lifting Weights

The first day or two after a new strength-training class or routine can be rough. Not only are you physically tired from exercising, but you're also feeling so sore that it's difficult to even lift your arms or bend down to tie your shoes. This pain you're feeling is known as delayed onset muscle soreness, often referred to as DOMS, and it usually appears 24 to 48 hours after your weight-training session. Ease your muscle soreness after lifting weights with tried-and-true techniques such as foam rolling, light movement and heat therapy.

The pain you feel 24 to 48 hours after lifting weights is known as delayed onset muscle soreness. (Image: FlamingoImages/iStock/GettyImages)

What Is DOMS?

A little bit of soreness or even mild pain during and after a bodybuilding session isn't a bad thing; it just shows that you worked hard while lifting those weights. However, when you quickly increase the intensity or the amount of weight you're lifting, your muscles react accordingly — and that reaction might be painful.

Researchers aren't 100 percent sure what causes DOMS, but the pain can likely be attributed to small tears in the connective tissue around the muscles. As your muscles repair themselves, they get stronger — and that means you're less likely to experience the same amount of soreness the next time you lift weights at that intensity level.

The pain from DOMS usually peaks around 48 hours after heavy exercise and gradually fades around 72 hours after the workout. Delayed onset muscle soreness differs from acute muscle soreness, which is what you feel during and immediately after weight training.

Keep in mind, especially if you're new to weight training, that there's a difference between acute or delayed onset muscle soreness and other types of pain that could indicate something is seriously wrong. If you feel a sharp pain — as opposed to mild soreness — that prevents you from moving a body part, you should visit a doctor. You might have done more damage than you previously realized.

Additionally, pain in an area that's swelling or bruising or that doesn't get better after several days merits a visit to a health care professional. A severe case of DOMS could indicate rhabdomyolysis, a rare but serious condition that's caused by injury to your skeletal muscles. When rhabdomyolysis occurs, potentially toxic compounds are released into the bloodstream, which can lead to dangerous complications such as kidney failure.

Massage and Foam Rolling

If you can swing the cost of a professional massage or have a willing partner who will knead a sore area, massage therapy can certainly help decrease the pain brought on by DOMS. A 2017 review of studies published in Fronts in Physiology determined that massage therapy after intense exercise does wonders for getting rid of DOMS pain, as well as improving muscle performance in the future.

If an actual massage isn't in the cards, the second-best scenario is self-myofascial release, which is the fancy term for giving yourself a massage. This is most easily done by foam rolling. Use the foam roller by positioning the targeted area over the roller and slowly but firmly pressing your body down, pushing on the sore spot for between 30 and 90 seconds. Release the pressure and repeat if necessary. You can also target the sore muscles, such as your calves, by rolling your body over the roller.

A study published in the Journal of Athletic Training in 2015 found that foam rolling for about 20 minutes immediately after exercise, as well as every 24 hours afterward, effectively reduces the symptoms of DOMS.

The stiff foam allows you to put a good amount of direct pressure on sore areas, which helps break down the tightness that can be causing some of the pain. If you have pain in a muscle that's hard to get to with the long, cylindrical shape of a foam roller, use a tennis or lacrosse ball in the same manner to pinpoint the sore muscle.

Vibration Therapy

In addition to foam rolling, vibration can soothe sore muscles caused by heaving weightlifting. Apply a handheld vibration device directly on the sore muscle to increase bloodflow to the area, improve circulation and help the muscle repair itself more quickly.

A study published in 2018 in the Journal of International Medical Research that included more than 250 participants concluded that vibration is a useful form of physiotherapy to reduce the effects of DOMS, though the study authors noted that the effects need more research before it can be definitively stated that vibration wards off muscle soreness.

Food and Beverages

In case you need any more proof that food is integral to athletic performance, consider its effect on DOMS, advises 2014 research published in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation:

  • Caffeine: The caffeine found in coffee, tea, some colas and chocolate, among other foods and beverages, blocks the adenosine receptor, which can deactivate the central nervous system and can decrease the effects of DOMS.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: The omega-3 fatty acids in fatty fish, walnuts and chia seeds might decrease exercise-induced inflammation, which could reduce overall DOMS symptoms.
  • Taurine: A number of animal products, such as meat, fish and dairy, contain taurine, and this organic acid that's found in skeletal muscle could have an effect on pain relief when it comes to sore muscles from DOMS, though it's not fully understood how the compound works to lessen the pain.
  • Polyphenols: A component of plant-based phytochemicals, polyphenols — specifically, in cherry juice — could reduce inflammation that is related to DOMS pain. Beet juice also contains polyphenols.

Old-fashioned water can help decrease the severity of DOMS too, so drink up to make sure you stay hydrated during and after a heavy workout.

Light Exercise

When your body aches from bodybuilding muscle pain, it's tempting to take the day off to recover. Rest days are an important part of a weightlifting routine, allowing those muscles to repair themselves and grow even stronger.

However, a little bit of light exercise, such as taking a walk or hopping on the recumbent bike or elliptical machine, can help decrease the pain from DOMS. If you're really sore, try a swimming workout — the buoyancy of the water might feel soothing on those aching muscles.

The American Council on Exercise says it's safe to exercise when you're suffering from delayed onset muscle soreness, as long as you're not at risk of overtraining or putting undue stress on ligaments or tendons.

Heat and Ice

Both heat and ice therapy have their purposes when it comes soothing muscle pain. Heat increases blood flow to the area, which can decrease pain, while ice reduces swelling and inflammation.

If you're only going to do one, stick to applying heat for about 20 minutes every hour to decrease joint stiffness, reduce tension in the muscles and help heal soft tissue by improving blood circulation in the area. Research published in 2017 in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine determined that applying heat immediately after heavy exercise is effective at reducing soreness, as is applying it 24 hours later, though to a lesser extent.

To apply heat safely, wrap up a heating pad in a towel and apply it directly to the sore area. Make sure not to burn your skin when trying to reduce the pain of DOMS.

Additionally, you can alternate heat and ice after a heavy workout, in an effort to rapidly narrow and widen blood vessels. This technique isn't meant to reduce pain necessarily, but rather reduce swelling and get your muscles back into shape if you need to use them for another workout the next day.

What Not to Do

The fitness industry is rife with myths and legends, including those surrounding how to relieve sore muscles. For example, scientists used to think sore muscles were caused by lactic acid buildup in the muscles, though that's now been proven to be untrue. More than three-quarters of the lactic acid that builds up in your muscles during exercise dissipates within a couple of minutes of ending your workout, according to the ACE Physical Therapy & Sports Medicine Institute.

Although the placebo effect is real, meaning that if you think a pain relief method is working, you're likely to feel that relief, there are some long-touted relief methods that aren't likely to actually alleviate much of your soreness.

  • Reconsider taking an NSAID: With any type of body ache, it's tempting to reach for the painkillers. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, stop the body from creating prostaglandins, which decreases pain and inflammation. However, research hasn't supported the use of NSAIDs in reducing muscle soreness. In fact, a study published in 2012 in Sports Medicine indicated that longer-term NSAID use could be detrimental to muscle growth.
  • Hold off on the Epsom salts: You can add Epsom salts to your hot bath water because they feel nice, but don't expect to get any sort of relief out of it. Transdermal magnesium, which is the scientific term for Epsom salts, doesn't have much research backing up its use in the tub.
  • Perform dynamic stretches: Dynamic stretches mimic functional movements and can improve mobility and range of motion, but static stretches — the kind where you reach and hold — won't have much of a long-term impact on DOMS.

Preventing DOMS

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. To avoid the pain of DOMS, be consistent in your weightlifting routine — weekend warriors are the ones most likely to suffer because their muscles aren't adapting to the stress of weightlifting or other exercises.

When you feel yourself getting stronger, increase your weight size gradually; too big a jump is a sure way to feel the ache a day or two later. Other tried-and-true ways to prevent DOMS, rather than treat the pain after the workout, include:

  • Do a warmup first: Before you start lifting weights, do a five-minute warmup to decrease the chances of DOMS. A warmup, such as light jogging or dynamic stretches, gets blood flowing to the muscles and prepares them for the burden they're about to bear.
  • Finish with a cool down: A cool down brings your heart rate back to its normal level and helps regulate your blood flow, helping to alleviate later muscle soreness.
  • Continue to work out: Once your muscles have repaired the tears that caused DOMS, they will be bigger and stronger. Next time you lift weights at the same level, you won't feel quite so sore. If you take a break from lifting, however, and then go back to it, you might feel those sore muscles after a heavy lifting session once again.
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