We’ve all pushed it a bit too hard and experienced that so-sore-it-hurts-to-stand feeling. It’s called delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, and it’s a sign your body is repairing and building back stronger.
Most of us view post-workout soreness as an indicator of a solid sweat session. But soreness isn’t necessarily a good measure of the quality of the workout, says Carlos Uquillas, M.D., sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles.
What Causes Muscle Soreness?
It’s pretty simple. If you tax a muscle that isn’t used to being taxed, you’re going to feel sore. “Eccentric loads create tension on the muscle fibers, which breaks them down and disrupts certain elements of the muscle cells,” Uquillas explains. Breaking down the muscle fibers initiates a cascade of inflammatory responses, leading to pain, swelling, and soreness.
Soreness and inflammation are mostly attributable to eccentric movements, such as dropping down for a squat (rather than standing back up, which is concentric movement). The soreness response can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to develop, which is why sometimes you work out and don’t feel stiff or achy until three days later. That’s totally normal and more common when you do unfamiliar movements.
“Soreness isn’t a marker of not being in shape; it just means the exercise is new to your body,” Uquillas explains.
Similarly, soreness isn’t a marker of the quality of your workout. “You can get a great workout—increasing strength, increasing endurance—and not be sore,” Uquillas adds.
When Is Soreness a Warning Sign?
There is definitely a threshold that separates good and bad soreness. Extreme soreness can develop into a condition called rhabdomyolysis—when the muscle tissue is so broken down that the fibers actually die instead of repair, releasing toxic contents into the bloodstream. This will make you crazy sore, but could also potentially land you in the hospital.
Don’t worry—rhabdomyolysis is pretty rare and you’re really only at risk if you’re hitting super intense workouts all the time, says Brian Bradley, Fitness Director of Elev8d Fitness, the new home workout program from the experts at Sonima.
The grey area of being just sore enough and too sore is totally a personal thing. “Aside from rhabdomyolysis, being ‘too sore’ isn’t bad for you, except that it dissuades a lot of people from working out,” Bradley says. “Personally, I can’t stand being super sore.”
Uquillas agrees: “If you work out really hard and feel so terrible for two to three days that you take the next two weeks off from working out, then when you try again, you’re going to be sore all over again, and that cycle becomes super discouraging.”
Being over your threshold for tolerable soreness can also inhibit your ability to feel better. “When you’re so sore it hurts to move, you’re inclined to just sit with that feeling,” Bradley says. “If you do a less intense workout, though, you have that satisfaction of feeling sore but also the ability to flush out your muscles and move the next day.”
How to Prevent Being So Sore You Can’t Move
Ease into a new workout gradually rather than going from zero to 60 on something you’ve never tried before. And stay hydrated: “When you’re dehydrated, your muscles are working with beef jerky instead of filet mignon,” Bradley says. You need water to help flush out your system, including metabolic particles that contribute to the post-workout pain and swelling.
You may also benefit from a low-intensity exercise program such as Elev8d Fitness. “The intensity of Elev8d workouts has been perfected to be the minimal effective dose your body needs at the chemical level, creating change so you can move better, be more balanced, and lose weight, without feeling like you’ve worked painfully hard,” Bradley says. So even if you’re sore from yesterday’s new eight-minute routine, you’re not too sore to move again today, flushing out your muscles and allowing you to work out again.
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