Where Does Muscle Soreness Come From and What to do About it

If you have ever done a workout in your life, you probably know what it means to be sore.  Even if you haven’t, I’m sure you’ve done something that has made you sore.  Muscle soreness is a totally normal result of exercise or activity.


If you’re like the majority of people, you think that you didn’t get a good workout if you’re not sore.  If you’re like some others, you think that muscle soreness is this terrible thing that you should never have to experience.  Well, both of these are incorrect.  Let’s first talk a little more specifically about what muscle soreness is, the difference between soreness and injury, and what to do to help your body recover from muscle soreness.


What is Muscle Soreness?


First, let’s get into the nitty-gritty, science-y stuff.  Muscle soreness is caused by little tears in your muscles from exercise.  The muscles get inflamed and start to repair themselves.  When your muscles start to repair themselves, they grow larger and stronger than before.  Some inflammation and soreness is a good thing.  These little muscle tears are necessary in order to rebuild and to create strong, healthy muscles.


We only get sore when we do one or more of the following:

  1. Do something we have never done before
  2. Use a heavier weight than we have ever used in that way
  3. Go a further or different range of motion than we have ever done
  4. Do more repetitions or a longer duration of something


So, that being said, it is important to point out that you will not always get sore with every single workout.  It is not uncommon to not get sore during some workouts because your body adapts to what you do.  This is totally okay and actually a good thing.  Sometimes your body needs more time to adapt or less time to adapt.  Listen to it.  If you’re not sore at all for 2 consistent workouts, it may be time to increase something.


Soreness vs. Pain/Injury


How do you know if you’re hurt or just sore?  I have many clients tell me things like, “My knee hurts during this exercise.”  Or “my back hurts really bad today.”  This is very normal; I hear it all the time and I even say things like this myself.  The problem is, what does hurt even mean?  Getting slapped hurts, breaking a leg hurts, sore muscles hurt, and so does banging your head against a brick wall.  But all of these feelings of pain are not equal in intensity nor severity.  So, when someone tells me that something is hurting, I need to figure out why.


First, where does your back hurt?  Then, does it hurt because you used your muscles, does it hurt because you twisted your back when doing your exercise, or does it hurt because you actually threw your back out?  It is very important for you to know the difference and be able to explain to your coach what is going on.  Most of the time, you will know if it is just muscular soreness simply by evaluating exactly where the pain is.  Can you feel the pain by poking some of your muscles with your fingers?  Or by stretching a muscle?  If it is not muscular soreness and it is pain from something you have done incorrectly, you will have typically felt the injury happen in the first place, or if not, you typically notice the soreness soon after the exercise.  Often, if it is an injury, you won’t feel it by stretching or poking a certain muscle, you will feel it when moving a certain way or maybe even not moving at all.


Just because something hurts, does not mean you cannot exercise the next day.  This is a common thought among exercisers.  You surely can exercise sore muscles, and in fact, you should as long as you have full range of motion in them and they’re not debilitatingly sore.  If you’re unsure if it’s safe to exercise or not, ask a professional for guidance.


Some Common Misconceptions of Muscle Soreness


There are several common fallacies when it comes to exercise in general, and that definitely holds true for soreness as well.  We tend to believe that this stuff called “lactic acid” is responsible for muscle soreness.  While lactic acid is produced by your body in response to anaerobic exercise, it only sticks around for a short period of time, then it is removed by the blood to the liver and kidneys.  Basically, without getting too scientific, your body produces lactic acid to fuel your muscles with the energy that they need to perform the exercise when oxygen alone isn’t enough.  This is responsible for the burning sensation you feel during or immediately after exercise, however, not the soreness you feel hours, or up to days later. This soreness you feel later on is sometimes referred to as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS.


Another common misconception you may hear about soreness is that you can combat muscle soreness by stretching.  This is also not necessarily true.  Studies have shown that stretching before or after exercise has not proven to prevent or eliminate soreness.  However, dynamic stretching (active stretching where your body goes through full ranges of motion) has been proven to help prevent injury when done correctly, as compared to static stretching (stretching in a held position for a specific period of time) which has not been proven to help with injury prevention.  The damage to the muscles (the tiny tears) are going to be there no matter how much you stretch, and that is a good thing.  It means the muscles will grow.  Stretching them does not heal these tears.


Now, this does NOT mean that we shouldn’t stretch! 


This just means that it is not going to magically heal your soreness.  It is important to take your muscles and joints through their full ranges of motion before putting them under load to prevent injury or muscle strains.  By all means, please stretch before and/or after you exercise, but be conscious not to push your stretches beyond your limit.  It is a great idea to stretch the day after exercise because sore muscles are shortened and tight and usually do not have their full range of motion.  Stretching will help increase range of motion so you can move better throughout your day.


One last common misconception I want to talk about is ice vs. heat.  You will often hear doctors or athletic trainers use the word RICE: Rest, ice, compression, elevate.  While this is all fine and dandy, many people try to use that as the answer to everything.  RICE is not always the answer.  Sometimes activity is a better answer than rest.  Sometimes heat is a better choice than ice.  It all depends on the situation.  I won’t get too deep into this, but one easy way to know whether or not you should ice or heat is to figure out what type of injury/pain you have and when it happened.


If you have an injury, then you better go get checked out by a professional and do what they tell you to do.  If you are just sore, then ice might be your best option.  If the problem is new, there is likely a high amount of inflammation at the area affected.  While inflammation is a good thing – it’s your body’s natural response to heal your wounds – you may want to reduce how much inflammation your body is producing.  We tend to produce more than necessary mostly because of our diets.


If you are sore but the soreness is more than a few days old, then you may want to turn to heat.  You have a more chronic soreness that may be more serious than just sore muscles.  You most likely have tightness or knot in your muscles which may need to loosen up.  Heat will relax the muscle and allow you to feel relief.  This being said, ice would not be a bad idea here either, and switching back and forth between the two maybe even better.  As always, if you’re not sure, consult a professional so you can get on the road to healing and feeling better as fast as possible.


The Magic of Foam Rolling


Foam rolling is a secret weapon that many people don’t know about yet but is gaining in popularity. Essentially, foam rolling is similar to getting a massage.  Woven over your muscles, ligaments, bones, veins, and pretty much all of your body is a system called fascia.  It functions to reduce friction inside the body.  Due to inflammation and other trauma, this system may get locked up and stop doing its job properly – resulting in tightness, soreness, and knots.  To release these fascial tight spots, you can apply pressure through foam rolling.  Foam rolling is a wonderful way to get your muscles ready for exercise, prevent injury, and help loosen the muscles up so you have more range of motion.


Soreness will eventually pass, but it will also inevitably come back time and time again.  This is a good thing!  This means that you are doing something.  If you’re ever unsure if you are experiencing too much soreness or if you feel as though something just isn’t right, definitely seek help, however, in most cases you are probably just sore from your workout and it will go away in 1-3 days.  Enjoy it.  Embrace it.  Do another workout and I promise it will feel much, much better!  That’s always my advice to my clients when they are sore – “Great, let’s work out!  That will take care of it!”  For some reason, they think I am cruel, but they always thank me afterward!  Happy lifting!


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