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

QUESTION: “Hi Dr. Neal, I consider myself to be very healthy. I eat almost entirely whole foods and exercise (normally some sort of rhythmic cardio interval training) EVERY SINGLE DAY… which leads to my question. Are “rest days” really necessary? I believe I do a decent job of listening to my body and don't demand the same from it every day – if I'm sore, I take it easier and understand I'll be putting up fewer active calories on my apple watch during my morning workout, but I still get in some sort of sweat-inducing movement. However, I frequently hear about planned rest days and was wondering if it is mandatory that I spend one day a week doing nothing but walking and sitting. I really appreciate your podcast. It's such a positive way for me to start my mornings. Keep up the fantastic and meaningful work.”

DR. NEAL: Thank you so much for taking the time to send in your question and for your kind words. I am thrilled that you enjoy the podcast. I have to compliment you, as well. The fact that you have been consistently active nearly every day is so impressive.


Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 50, Episode 670, and Episode 1085 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.


Not only that, but you’re in tune with your body. You mentioned that on days when you’re feeling sore, you tone down your workouts by engaging in less intense activity. Listening to what your body is telling you is so important.

Sometimes, the brain overrides what the rest of the body is telling us. This doesn’t just apply to exercise. Think about the last time your body was telling you that you need to get to sleep. Instead, you fought and fought to keep your eyes open to finish that television show, or movie, or game on your phone.

We ignore those signals and that can lead to illness or injury. I know I have been guilty of doing this!

But is it necessary to take a full day to allow the body to recover?

The short answer is, “No.”

Let’s discuss!

What Happens to the Body During a Workout

When we’re active, the body naturally creates waste products and sometimes, little tears in muscles can happen. These little tears are often called “microtears” and are a natural part of the process especially during resistance training. The buildup of waste products and these microtears can lead to inflammation. This means that the body’s immune system starts kicking in to help clear these waste products and repair the microtears.

We also have to remember that anytime we move, we’re also using connective tissues like tendons and ligaments. So, some believe that we need to provide the body with an adequate rest period to help recover from this exercise-induced stress.

Muscle Soreness vs. Injury

By the way, from beginners to elite athletes, soreness is something we all deal with from time to time. Many times on this podcast, I have shared how certain family members of mine think my shoulders need to be bigger since, in their opinion, they’re dwarfed by some of my other features.

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.

As mentioned earlier, 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 a muscle tears too much, it can lead to permanent damage, so that’s why we say some soreness is okay, but too much pain may mean some serious damage was done.

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.

A Proper Recovery

According to the American College of Sports Medicine (or, ACSM), even if you aren’t feeling sore, proper recovery post-workout is important to prevent injury and maximize performance during the next exercise bout. It’s important to remember that we need to find what works best for you. So, what I’m about to share are general guidelines.

Here are the recommendations:

ACSM states that a recovery day does not need to involve relaxing on the couch. Instead, incorporating less intense activities is key. And, yes, while walking is great for off-days, it isn’t the only option. They also recommend yoga or active stretching. Or, if running is your norm, you could instead go for a light jog. After a particularly intense session, the general rule is to allow the body 48 hours of rest before using the same muscle group again.

That last part is key… 48 hours of rest before using the same muscle group.

So, if you were to completely fatigue your shoulders on Monday, then ACSM would say don’t perform shoulder-specific exercises for at least another 48 hours. So, you could be good to perform some shoulder exercises by Thursday. But, this also means that after you fatigued your shoulders, you could exercise again the next day and, say, work the legs and completely stay away from any shoulder work.

So, again, complete rest may not be necessary. Instead, lowering the intensity and mixing things up by working different groups of muscles may be most important. Oh, and I should mention something about sleep here.

Be sure you’re getting at least 7 hours of quality sleep most nights. When we’re experiencing that deep, restorative sleep, the body has a chance to repair itself. And, that’s when muscle growth truly happens.

When You May Need a Recovery Day

Now, there are ways to know whether someone may be overtraining and is in need of a complete rest day – the kind of rest day that requires adequate hydration, good nutrition and binging Netflix. When Henry Cavill was training to be Superman in the film, Man of Steel, he was working out so intensely and was on such a restrictive diet, he claimed that he began experiencing severe mood swings. Sure enough, when we look at the research, this is a sign of overtraining.

According to the American Council on Exercise, there are some signs and symptoms to watch out for to see if you need an off day:

  1. The aforementioned mood swings. If you’re experiencing mood swings or feelings of depression, consider giving your body some time to rest. If the feelings persist, this may mean there’s something else going on so definitely speak to a health professional if this is the case.
  2. You experience soreness 48 hours after the workout. This is called delayed-onset muscle soreness or DOMS. If you don’t feel sore immediately after the workout, but 1 or 2 days later, it likely means there was quite a bit of muscle tearing. This is why it’s called, “delayed-onset” – it took a long time for those soreness feelings to pop up. Because of this micro-tearing, your body may experience some inflammation. And, depending on where you’re feeling most sore, you may need to rest your body to allow it to repair those tissues.
  3. Related to what I just mentioned about DOMS, if you find you’re feeling sluggish the next day, it may mean that you need some time off. You may not feel actually feel sore, but if you discover that it takes you a bit longer to move around the house and your head feels kind of fuzzy, it may be time to take a break.
  4. Your normal routine feels like a challenge. I’ve personally experienced days like this. I’m going through my warm-up and I can’t wait for it to end. Each second of my warm-up routine feels like an hour. I used to think, “What’s going on?? Am I out of shape??” Nope, this just means I better back off and think about completing a less intense workout.

Tips to Reduce Muscle Soreness After Working Out

Here are some ways to speed up the healing process for sore muscles.

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.

Tips to Reduce Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

As mentioned earlier, delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, refers to the fact that you may not feel sore right away after a workout.

I know for me, when I hop off the bike or row machine or leave the weight room after a particularly grueling workout, I often don’t feel sore right away. I feel tired for sure, but not sore. The soreness doesn’t kick in until a day, or sometimes 2 days later. This is why it’s called “delayed-onset” muscle soreness.

Researchers have discovered that the longer it takes the soreness to kick in, the more muscle damage may have occurred. Intense soreness that prevents you from performing optimally in other areas of your life means that you may need to decrease the intensity or duration of your workouts.

You shouldn't feel so sore that you are miserable for days after. The goal of exercise is to help you feel your best.

If this isn’t happening, go ahead and cut back for now. Let your body adapt to the new routine, then slowly increase your intensity or duration over time.

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.”

You’re on the right track by being sure you’re listening to your body.

If you’re not experiencing any of these signs or symptoms and feel great staying active every day, then keep it up.

But, if your body starts telling you it’s time for an off day, definitely listen!

As the character Cosmo Kramer from the hit sitcom Seinfeld would say, “You know, I don’t argue with the body, Jerry. It’s an argument you can’t win.”

He was right about that.

Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 50, Episode 670, and Episode 1085 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

mm

Neal Malik

Dr. Neal Malik ("Dr. Neal") is currently a professor at California State University, San Bernardino. Before this, he served as Department Chair at Bastyr University California. Dr. Neal has also published peer-reviewed scientific research and presented at national conferences. Send in your health related question and Dr. Neal will answer it on the Optimal Health Daily show!
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