Is Working Out With Sore Muscles a Good Idea? Fitness Pros Weigh In
Being sore after a workout feels like receiving a gold star; it's a promising reminder of the gains you're making, the effort it took for you to get to the gym, and how you really pushed yourself through your workout.
While soreness is natural after trying a new workout or training for improved strength, hypertrophy (muscle growth), and endurance, there's a fine line between the "no pain, no gain" mentality and pushing your body too hard. Challenging yourself physically does reap results, but you need to listen to your body and give it the proper rest it needs between workouts.
That said, if you're sore the day after your workout — or even for several days after — should you still work out? If you recently started a new workout plan or are trying to be more consistent with your fitness routine, you may be hesitant to skip a day, but exercising while sore isn't always a good idea. We spoke to a physical therapist, athletic trainer, and performance coach to learn more about the benefits and dangers of working out with sore muscles, as well as anything else you need to know when dealing with muscle soreness.
Why Your Muscles Get Sore
To understand whether it's a good idea to work out when you're sore, you need to know what muscle soreness is, exactly, and why muscles get sore in the first place.
Sore muscles occur when your body is exposed to a stressor — in this case, exercise — that it's not used to. During a challenging workout or intense physical activity, you actually cause damage to your muscle fibers and connective tissues. Afterward, your body begins a recovery process to repair that damage. It sounds like a bad thing, but it's actually good: during the repair process, your body rebuilds those fibers back stronger than they were before, which results in muscle or strength gains, making you more physically capable. However, in the meantime, the inflammatory response that occurs (and the soreness you feel) comes from both the damage and the processes needed to heal, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).
Should You Work Out When You're Sore?
When it comes to working out while sore, there's some nuance involved, says athletic trainer and physical therapist Meghan Barrington, DPT, CSCS.
In general, if you're a little stiff from a tough workout, it's OK to exercise your sore muscles. It can actually be helpful, because movement encourages blood flow, and blood facilitates recovery, Barrington explains. Blood flow speeds up the delivery of nutrients to damaged muscles, making tissues pliable and increasing your range of motion — all of which help ease pain and support the recovery process.
That said, the type of workout matters. When working out while sore, your best choice is one that's geared toward active recovery — i.e., low intensity and low impact. NASM recommends light resistance exercise (like core work) or aerobic exercise (aka cardio), which is ideal for active recovery because it increases your heart rate and thus promotes circulation. That makes activities like walking, jogging, swimming, cycling, and light hiking great options when you're sore.
It may also feel good to stretch, though current research hasn't demonstrated that stretching has any specific benefits for sore muscles. The key to stretching while sore is to take it slow and do very gentle movements so as to not inflict any further damage on the muscle.
If you're set on exercising while sore, it's also a good idea to alternate muscle groups so you don't further damage your already-sore muscles, per NASM. For example, if your lower body is sore from a leg-day workout, you could do upper-body and core work while your legs and glutes are recovering.
And if you're in a lot of pain — like, can barely walk or lift your arms — take the hint and give your body the time to rest rather than hitting the gym.
Overall, it's important to give your body time to recover, since there are some risks when it comes to exercising when sore. In the short term, training too much without enough recovery can cause you to feel run down or put you at risk of injury, according to the Hospital for Special Surgery. And over time, training too much without giving your body an adequate rest period can cause overtraining syndrome, which is marked by symptoms like fatigue, overuse injuries, a decline in performance, loss of appetite, and a weakened immune system.
If it seems like you're always sore, you may need to also look at how you're structuring your workout, as well as your nutrition, your hydration, and other parts of your recovery and overall stress management, Barrington says. If you're extremely sore after every workout, it could mean you're training too much, training too hard, or trying to push too far past your body's current abilities.
Muscle Soreness vs. Injury
Before you even think about working out while sore, it's also imperative to make sure what you're feeling isn't an injury. Pain is not always clear cut; however, if your pain is not stiff, achy, or tight, you could have injured yourself during your workout.
"Injury can occur when the body is exposed to excessive loads or forces that exceed its capacity to absorb or adapt to them," explains athletic trainer Aleena Kanner, host of the "Move Your Brain Move Your Body" podcast. Some signs that you may have injured a muscle are tenderness and swelling, deep or sharp pains, or pain or symptoms that linger for more than five days. In that case, you should not work out and should seek out a medical professional.
Recovery Techniques to Relieve Sore Muscles
In addition to — or instead of — working out with sore muscles, follow these tips from trainer Lisa Ulley, CEO of LisaUlleyFit, to assist your body in recovering after a workout and help relieve sore muscles.
- Warm Up: Start with gentle, dynamic stretching in the morning if your muscles are sore, Ulley says.
- Stay Hydrated: "Be consistent with drinking about a gallon of water every day," Ulley recommends. Staying hydrated helps your body maintain proper circulation, which is important for recovery.
- Get enough protein: Protein is essential for building and repairing muscle tissue, so make sure you're eating enough protein per day (0.8-1.2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight), Ulley says.
- Prioritize sleep: During sleep, your body does a lot of recovery work, so it's important to get seven to nine hours of sleep per night when you're recovering, Ulley says.
The Takeaway on Working Out While Sore
When in doubt, listen to your body and give it the rest it needs to recover. Working out sore muscles can be helpful because it encourages blood flow, which can help speed up your recovery, but it can also come with risks — the largest being injury.
If you're sore all the time, it may be a clue to take a closer look at your workout plan and goals. Whether working on your own or with a fitness professional, developing a workout program with your specific goals in mind can help you make habits that will help you build a strong foundation and progress at a safe rate.