Sore muscles are extremely common in weight training, but that doesn’t mean they’re acceptable. You shouldn’t have to suffer through the next couple of days after a high-intensity workout. There are ways to prevent muscle soreness before it happens, and also ways to cure it once it has already set in.
What causes sore muscles?
To prevent and heal sore muscles, it’s important to understand why they get sore in the first place.
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is the term for the post-workout muscle soreness many of us have experienced. It is caused by small micro-tears in the muscle tissue that occur during exercise.
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Experts used to think that muscle soreness was due to lactic acid buildup in the muscles, but more recent research has shown that micro-tears cause inflammation within the muscle, which is actually causing the soreness.
Typically, you begin to experience DOMS 12 to 48 hours post-workout, with the soreness peaking at about 48 hours. It begins to dissipate within 48 to 60 hours.
Now that you understand the how and why, let’s move on to prevention and cure.
1. Dynamic Warm-Up
The first step is a dynamic warm-up that is relevant to the exercise you will perform that day. For example, if you are performing a sprint circuit, warm up with a brisk jog and progress to sprints at 80 percent before you go full speed. If the workout of the day is heavy Squats and Deadlifts, perform a few bodyweight repetitions beforehand while working your way up to your target weight for the day.
The key with the warm-up is to make it dynamic; don’t use static stretching before a workout, as that has been shown to deactivate the muscle for up to 10 minutes. Check out the sample dynamic warm-up below.
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Sample dynamic warm-up for leg day:
- Front kicks x10
- Lateral kicks x10
- Back kicks x10
- High knee pulls
- Hip openers
- Reverse hip openers
- Dynamic side lunges
- Front lunge with a twist
- Back lunge with a twist
- Backwards bounds
- Knee up, knee side
- Butt kickers at 50%
- High knees at 50%
- High skips at 50%
- Lateral high knees at 50%
- Carioca at 50%
- Butt kickers at 100%
- High knees at 100%
- High skips at 100%
- Lateral high knees at 100%
- Carioca at 100%
- (For a great cooldown, go through the same series of exercises in reverse order.)
The next step is to gradually cool down from your exercise. If you have finished a sprint circuit, cool down with a few extra sprints at 50-60 percent, then slow it down to a jog, followed by a brisk walk. If you are done squatting and deadlifting, go back down to the weight you warmed up with and do another set, followed by a set using only your body weight.
3. Foam Rolling
The key to foam rolling is to roll around until you feel a tender spot (it will feel like a bruise), then stay right on that spot with constant pressure for 20-30 seconds. The constant pressure, considered self-myofascial release, will break up the trigger points or adhesions built up in the muscle. After you hold the foam roller on those tender spots, slowly roll through the muscle to prevent scarring of the fascia, which is the tissue covering all of your muscles.
4. Controlled, Static Stretching
After you have cooled down and broken up the adhesions within the muscle, slowly stretch your muscles out while they are still warm. Keep the stretches slow, controlled and strong. You should be more flexible than you were before the workout began.
5. Ice, Ice Ice
Ice is your best friend after working out. It constricts the blood vessels, alleviates inflammation and speeds up recovery from those micro tears within the muscles. Typically, you should ice for 15 to 20 minutes (or until the area is numb), two to three times per day.
For baseball pitchers with sore arms, the easiest way to ice is to fill a bucket with ice water and submerge your whole arm. For runners, soccer players, hockey players or anyone with sore legs, ice baths are an effective way to ice the entire lower body in one sitting. Stay away from heat when you are experiencing DOMS. The soreness is from the inflammation—and heat produces inflammation. Heat will feel better while it is on the muscles, but can actually exacerbate the issue.
Rest doesn’t mean doing nothing. Rest can occur by varying your workout routine. If you are doing leg day on Monday, do arm day on Tuesday, recovery day on Wednesday and back to legs again on Thursday. This will give your muscles a break instead of stressing the same ones every day. If you are doing a full-body workout on Monday, do cardio on Tuesday, recovery on Wednesday and back to a full-body workout on Thursday. Recovery day can involve a variety of different activities, including an easy bike ride, a light jog, bodyweight exercises, pick-up basketball or soccer, or an easy morning hike.
Proper nutrition is crucial for anyone who is serious about working out. First, you must stay hydrated by drinking half your body weight in ounces of water every day (e.g., someone who weighs 200 pounds should drink 100 ounces or 12 to 13 cups of water per day).
You must also include electrolytes in your diet, specifically potassium (bananas, raisins, avocados) and sodium (celery, bell peppers), since they are the primary ones you lose during exercise.
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Staying hydrated and consuming electrolytes is ideal for anyone who is active, but there are also foods that can actually reduce inflammation. Cherry juice and pineapples are two essential items to add to your diet, as they can directly reduce inflammation. Vitamin C (bell peppers, oranges, dark green vegetables) and antioxidants (purple grapes, blueberries, dark green vegetables) also help to prevent muscle soreness.
Finally, you can take a branched chain amino acid supplement on a regular basis to promote faster recovery and muscle-building. Nutrition is all about consistency—eating the right things day in and day out.