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Should You Rest or Push Through Workout Muscle Soreness?

A woman sitting on a yoga mat next to some weights and holding a water bottle.

Exercise is good for you, but feeling sore afterward is never fun. When faced with exercise-induced soreness, should you push through the pain or take it easy? We’ll take a look at why it happens, how you can decrease it, and whether taking an extended break is the best solution.

Why Do We Get Sore After Exercising?

Soreness usually occurs several hours or a day after you perform any strenuous physical activity. It usually goes away in a few days. But why does it occur in the first place?

Whenever you work out, your muscles are contracting and stretching, which causes strain and microtrauma to the muscle fibers. When your body works hard to repair the microdamage, this causes the muscles to grow and get stronger over time.

Most commonly, you’ll start feeling sore for one of the following reasons:

  • You just worked out after a long period of rest.
  • You introduced a new movement or exercise into your routine.
  • You worked out longer or more strenuously than usual.
  • You overexercised or overexerted yourself.
  • You did higher-intensity exercises than you’re used to.
  • You used heavier weights than you normally do.
  • You switched up your routine completely. For example, you went running after months of lifting weights, or tried kickboxing after months of just doing yoga.

How Long Will You Be Sore?

Muscle soreness usually occurs 12-24 hours after your workout, with peak discomfort sometimes lasting up to 72 hours. This is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). It’s different from acute muscle soreness, which is caused by a buildup of lactic acid immediately after a workout.

DOMS is the reason walking up some stairs is agonizing a few days after an intense leg day, and why doing intense targeted workouts back-to-back ends in pain.

Moving with DOMS

A woman doing yoga on a mat in her living room.
Olesya Kuznetsova/Shutterstock

You might be tempted to take a total rest every time you experience post-workout muscle pain. However, incorporating some kind of aerobic movement actually decreases the length and intensity of DOMS pain.

Still, working out with high-intensity or resistance is generally best avoided. More contraction or additional weight can further exacerbate the symptoms or cause even more intramuscular inflammation, and prolong the entire experience.

Just as you don’t get rid of blisters by running harder and longer, you won’t get rid of DOMS by going right back to hitting the weights.

Stretching and lower-intensity workouts, such as yoga or Pilates, can absolutely be helpful when the DOMS strike. Including these in your workout rotation will help you stay active, while encouraging recovery.

Complete Rest

Taking a day off and doing absolutely nothing sounds like a fantastic idea when you wake up and can’t seem to roll out of bed. If you really did overdo it and feel completely wrecked, a total rest day probably is a good idea.

When you’re in pain, fatigued, or just have low energy, working out anyway can lead to poor form and even injuries.

However, if you take a day off, do try to limit it to just one. The following day, try a low-impact activity. Taking multiple days off because you overdid it won’t make your DOMS go away. In fact, it just makes things worse in the end. By the time you get back to the gym, you’ll have to start from scratch and just get sore all over again.

Additional Recovery Time Tips and Tricks

If you’re looking for more techniques to manage your sore muscles, try some of the treatments below to decrease your pain and recovery time:

  • Massage: Not only does it significantly reduce pain, but having a regular massage can help prepare your body for workouts and lower the impact of future DOMS. It also improves blood circulation, which, in turn, aids recovery and improves the body’s ability to fight soreness over time.
  • Cold therapy: Whether you just immerse yourself in cold water or go to cryotherapy sessions, you’re bound to get some relief. Doing it on the regular can also help you get back to your workouts much sooner.
  • Foam rolling: The myofascial release you get from foam rolling can help sore and tense muscles recover much faster. This is because you’re actively working on releasing the toxins from your body and breaking down the lactic acid. Just make sure you do it properly and avoid the most common mistakes.
  • Compression boot therapy: Loved by many athletes, this seems to help with pain and tension by stimulating the lymphatic and cardiovascular systems. This causes an acceleration in the removal of metabolic waste. Almost every recovery and spa clinic seems to have a pair on hand, or you can easily get some online.

Ready to tackle those sore muscles once and for all? Try a mix of gentle movements and rest, along with a few helpful tools to speed up your recovery.

Karla Tafra Karla Tafra
Karla is a certified yoga teacher, nutritionist, content creator and an overall wellness coach with over 10 years of international experience in teaching, writing, coaching, and helping others transform their lives. From Croatia to Spain and now, the US, she calls Seattle her new home where she lives and works with her husband. Read Full Bio »
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