Ouch! Should You Work Out When Sore?
We’ve all had those days after an intense workout when we’re laughing with friends about our sore muscles and how we are struggling to sit down, put on a bra or take the stairs, but when is it ok to push through, and when is it a sign you should rest? Here’s what you should know about exercising when you’re feeling sore.
What causes muscle soreness?
When you challenge your muscles with strength training or a tough workout, you can cause tiny tears in the muscle from stressing the fibres beyond what they are used to. This is a completely normal physiological response which can cause those post-workout aches (aka DOMS or delayed onset muscle soreness), and your muscles then repair and rebuild to become stronger when you rest.
If your muscles aren’t sore, does that mean you didn’t work hard?
Nope, that’s definitely not the case! With regular training, your muscles become stronger and more resilient, meaning those tears won’t happen as easily as they did in your first few weeks of training.
This is why you often notice significant soreness if you’re new to exercise or returning after a break, but experience it much less regularly further down the track, even if your workouts still feel tough.
The moral of the story - having sore muscles is NOT a box you need to tick to feel like you had an effective workout or a sign that you are making progress, and you shouldn’t feel like every workout needs to be super tough.
When it comes to soreness, when should you prioritise rest?
This all depends on what kind of pain you’re experiencing and how long it’s lasting for. If the muscle soreness you’re experiencing after a workout is so severe that it’s affecting your range of motion and ability to perform exercises with good form, you should definitely rest. The same goes for if you’re really struggling with daily movements.
When you’re feeling sore, it’s common to sacrifice your form or recruit incorrect muscle groups to compensate and avoid feeling the pain, and this can increase your risk of injury. Powering through and working out too often can also lead to overtraining and stress injuries, where you tear the muscle that is already damaged and hasn’t had enough time to repair.
Thinking that more is always better or buying into the ‘no pain no gain’ mentality often isn’t healthy and can create a habit of overriding your body’s natural signals. Your muscles recover and rebuild when you rest, not during your workout time, so don’t schedule in another session under the illusion that you’ll see better or faster results on your fitness journey by working out as much as possible!
If you want to find a way to keep moving but don’t feel up to another workout, low-intensity steady state cardio is a great option that supports your recovery by promoting blood flow to your muscles. Head out for a walk, cycle, swim or roll out of your yoga mat for a gentle flow.
If you’re experiencing sharp pain, intense discomfort, are considering taking painkillers, or it’s a strain or sprain rather than DOMS, prioritise your rest. If the pain continues for more than three days, see your healthcare provider for advice. Not sure if it’s muscle soreness or a more serious injury? Apart from sharp pain, other telltale signs include swelling, bruising, tingling or numbness.
When is it OK to push through and do another workout?
Sometimes, your muscles will feel achy for a few days after an intense workout. If you’re feeling ready to complete another workout but those muscle aches are still lingering, you could opt for a workout that focuses on different muscle groups, or reduce the intensity.
If your arms are out of action, a lower body workout could be a good option! Many Sweat programs are designed with your muscle recovery in mind and follow this pattern of alternating muscle groups to help you maximise your training. If you feel sharp pain during your workout or it’s uncomfortable beyond just the muscle burn, stop and prioritise your rest and recovery.
What can you do to increase muscle recovery and reduce soreness?
To reduce the severity of muscle soreness and how long it lasts, here are some tips:
- Do a 5-10 minute warm-up before each workout to increase blood flow and prepare your body for the movement to come
- Make time for a quick cool-down with some walking, cycling, stretching or foam-rolling after your workouts to let your body gradually come back to a resting state
- Prioritise your rest days and get enough quality sleep
- Eat enough protein to support your muscle growth and repair. Try to eat a good source of protein at every meal as your body can only absorb so much at a time.
- In between workouts, keep your body moving to increase blood flow to your muscles. This doesn’t have to be a workout - low-intensity steady state cardio (like walking, cycling or swimming) is a great option for active recovery, as are yoga and Pilates. You might even want to incorporate some exercise snacks!
- If you’re starting a new program or coming back from a break, listen to your body and start gently. Gradually increasing the intensity and frequency can help your body adjust and reduce intense soreness.
- Continue to build the habit of exercising regularly, rather than giving up because of the initial discomfort. The more you work out and build your strength, the less soreness you’ll experience over time.
Having sore muscles can be a satisfying feeling, but it can be hard to know whether to push ahead with your next workout or rest. Listen to your body, slow down when you need more recovery, and know the difference between workout aches and pain that could be an injury. Your health is most important!
* Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. Sweat assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article.