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What to Do About Sore Muscles After a Workout: Should You Rest or Work Out When Sore?

From the beginners to the elite athletes, soreness is something we all deal with from time to time.

Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 50 and Episode 670 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

My wife thinks my shoulders need to be bigger since, in her opinion, they’re dwarfed by some of my other features. Well, I have been on this “total body” high-intensity workout kick lately so I really hadn’t been working specific body parts lately… until my wife made that comment. I hopped backed into the weight room and worked just my shoulders for about an hour. The next day, my shoulders were on fire. So now what? Should I go back and do the routine again or rest them?

It turns out that neither are correct. There are a couple of ways to speed up the healing process for sore muscles.

First, I must mention that muscles feel sore because there has been some damage to the muscle. Now don’t get me wrong. This is not a bad thing. Soreness simply means that you broke down some of your old muscle because you pushed yourself (which is a good thing), and now your body is repairing that muscle which actually leads to muscle growth and improved strength.

Sometimes, though, folks mistake soreness for an injury. So it’s important to know your body. If it feels like you may have injured yourself, the following does not apply to you. It’s best to be evaluated by a physician. But if you're experiencing soreness, here’s what you can do.

Tips to Reduce Muscle Soreness After Working Out

1. Work out that same group of muscles again, but at a much lighter intensity and shorter duration. For example, my shoulders were definitely sore after my hour shoulder-specific workout. The next day, to speed up the healing and recovery process, I performed shoulder presses with some dumbbells using a much lighter weight. My goal was 1 set of 15-20 repetitions. I then performed 1 set of some dumbbell lateral raises, again using a very light weight with a goal of 15-20 repetitions. Lastly, I performed barbell upright rows with… you guessed it, a light weight and high reps.

Why is this helpful? Working the same groups of muscles again brings more blood to those areas. Increasing blood flow is key because blood brings important nutrients to help heal those tissues.

2. Use a combination of ice and heat. Some have said that for sore muscles, you need to ice them. Others will tell you to go sit in a Jacuzzi for 30 minutes. Well, which one is it?? Turns out, both are correct. A combination of hot and cold can help muscle soreness. The sweet spot is pressing a cold pack that’s been wrapped in a towel against the muscles for about 15-20 minutes, then apply 15 minutes of heat (using a wet towel or a heating pad) to that same area. You may repeat this cycle up to 6 times over the next 48 hours.

Why is this helpful? Researchers aren’t exactly sure but somehow the combination of the cold, which will reduce inflammation and heat which will bring more blood to the area, helps speed up the healing process.

3. Take time for warm-ups and cool-downs. Basically, a warm-up may be valuable because it gets your muscles ready for the upcoming activity. I say “may be” because there’s been some debate about this recently. But most experts in the field believe that a warm-up can only help and not harm. A proper warm-up should involve major body parts and be performed at light to moderate intensity. If today is a cardio day, for example, and you planned on going for a run then warm up by first walking then lightly jogging. Before performing resistance exercises, you can also walk or jog for 5 minutes.

Then, before you work a particular set of muscles, perform 1 set using a light weight. A cool-down also prevents injury and will help stabilize blood pressure and heart rate after the workout. Sometimes, abruptly stopping a really tough workout can make us feel a little dizzy or lightheaded. A cool-down can help prevent or relieve those symptoms. (If it doesn’t, stop what you’re doing, lie down, and elevate your feet!). The recommendations for cool-downs are very similar to the warm-up: perform a lighter intensity cardiovascular movement (like walking) for about 5 minutes. But here’s the big difference: now is the best time to perform those static (i.e. holding) stretches.

4. Stretch. At a minimum, it’s better to stretch after a warm-up but it’s best to stretch after the cool-down. Ideally, stretch all of the major muscle groups (i.e. legs, chest, back, shoulders), but gently stretch those that are sore. If you can fit some stretching in 2-3 days each week, that’d be great. Best is 5-7 days per week. When stretching those muscles, pull them until you feel some tightness… mild discomfort is the goal. NOT PAIN. Hold that position for 15-30 seconds. Stretch those muscles groups 2-4 times. It doesn’t need to be the same exact stretch, though. For example, there are like 15 different ways to stretch your hamstrings. Ditto your quads. Use different methods, but stretch that group of muscles at least twice during the same session.

When Should You Take a Rest Day After Working Out?

Take a rest day after a particularly grueling workout. The workout may have gone really well, but the next day, you’re sore all over. That means it’s time to take a rest day.

Or let’s say during your workout, you’re struggling a bit. Moves that felt easy before now feel clunky and difficult. Every second you spend working out feels like an hour. Your heart’s just not in it. It may be time for a rest day.

What Should a Rest Day Consist Of?

Now let me be clear about what a “rest day” really means. It means that you go a bit easy on yourself. It doesn’t mean you lay on the couch and binge-watch season 2 of The Punisher on Netflix.

Get up and move your body but in different ways. Think about a rest day as a “mix things up day.”

  • Spend an hour performing some active stretching, or
  • Do an hour of yoga, or
  • Go for a light jog, or
  • Do something active and fun like paddleboarding

Notice that with all of these examples, you’re still moving, but just not as intensely or at the same volume as before. Of course this advice goes out the window if you’re injured or sick. In that case, listen to your doctor.

Should You Take a Rest Week?

I should also mention that you may even need a full “rest week.” Again, this doesn’t mean you get to lay in bed all week. Instead, think about other ways to stay active without doing your normal routine.

  • Monday: go for a long walk at the beach
  • Tuesday: try archery. No joke, I did this, and my hands, arms, and shoulders were pretty sore the next day.
  • Friday: take a dance lesson. Yes, I actually did this too, and no, I’m not going to share that experience with you. Ok, you twisted my arm. Let’s just say my dancing partner probably needed their toes reattached to their feet (because I stepped on them so much).

I think you get the idea. Bottom line: a rest day or even a rest week isn’t really resting in the traditional way we think about it. Instead, use this time to “mix things up.”

Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 50 and Episode 670 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

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