How to Handle Muscle Soreness

Have you ever woken up the day after a tough workout with muscles so sore, you felt like your entire body had been beaten by tiny little hammers in the night? If you have, you know the feeling of DOMS, “delayed onset muscle soreness.” DOMS comes from either doing a new workout/exercise or from a lot of training volume (more sets/reps than you’re able to recover from).
Contrary to popular belief, soreness is not a sign of a good workout. It’s also not a sign of an effective workout. It simply means that you did more work than your body is accustomed to doing.

What causes muscle soreness?

Generally speaking, that I’m-so-sore-I-can’t-walk-up-stairs feeling is is more likely to happen after doing more (or different) exercise than you’re used to, and it’s caused by microtears in your muscles.
Normally, your body gets right to work repairing muscle tears after a workout. But if you do more work and create more damage than usual, your body can’t recover as efficiently.
You can also become sore if you don’t sleep enough before or after a hard workout; if you don’t stay hydrated; and if you don’t eat enough food to provide the raw materials for muscle recovery (specifically carbs and protein).
As you can see, soreness can come from your training output (too much exercise or doing new/different exercises) and from not enough inputs in the form of sleep, water, and nutrients.

What can you do about soreness?

Ease into new workouts

First, don’t go from 0 to 60 after taking time off – ease into a new workout routine. Novel stimulus will cause more soreness, so easing in will reduce your chances of dealing with crippling DOMS.
Apply “progressive overload” to your training. Gradually increase the challenge week to week.
Here’s how:

  • Did 8 reps last week? Aim for 9-10 this week.
  • Lifted 50 pounds last week? Try 55 pounds this week. 
  • Completed 2-3 sets last week? Do 3-4 sets this week.
  • Note: only increase one variable at a time, not all three at once.

Planning for rest days is important, too. Resting allows sufficient recovery between training sessions to avoid muscle soreness from overtraining.
I recently posted about the benefit of recovery days on Instagram. Check out the post below.

Warm up properly to avoid soreness

The walk from your car to the weight room isn’t enough warm up for maxing out your squat or bench press. Make sure you take the time (5-10 minutes is plenty) to warm up properly before strength training. Here’s how to structure an effective warm up: Prevent Injury With This Warm Up

Dial in sleep, hydration, and nutrition

Secondly, make sure you get enough sleep, water, and calories from protein and carbs.
In terms of sleep, getting at least 7 hours of quality shut-eye each night is key. Bonus points for sleeping in a cool, dark room.
To stay hydrated, drink at least half your body weight in ounces of water. A 150-lb person should drink about 75 oz water daily, minimum – more if you’re training intensely or spend time outside in high temperatures.
A good rule of thumb for protein is about 1g protein per pound of body weight (or goal weight if you have a lot of weight to lose). A good rule of thumb for carbs is 1-2x protein in grams. So if you weigh 150-lbs, you might aim for 150g protein and between 150-300g of carbs (higher end if you train intensely). Fats should make up at least 20% of your calories.

Recovery modalities for sore muscles

Finally, try different recovery modalities to find ones that work for you.
This is often people’s first thought for how to deal with soreness, when really, it should be a cherry on top of appropriate training volume (3-5 workouts per week, an amount of sets x reps your body can handle, using appropriate weight for each exercise, etc) and dialing in your sleep, hydration, and nutrition.
Personally, I prefer to do soft tissue work like foam rolling and keep a regular massage appointment. I also go for daily walks, plan for rest days throughout the week, take epsom baths, and use an electrical stimulation device called PowerDot when I’m dealing with soreness or nagging pain.
Supplements and medication should be your last line of defense. Magnesium is a good choice to help with sleep and muscle soreness. If the pain from DOMS is unbearable, using heat can help – try a hot shower or bath to ease your soreness.
And while it’s tempting to skip your next workout when you feel really sore, the best thing you can do is get moving again as soon as possible. That doesn’t have to mean another killer workout! But walking, stretching, and light exercise can be just the thing to flush out the soreness you’re feeling.