I worked out and now I’m SO SORE. Help?

“Dear Steve, I think my legs are dying and I can’t walk. HALP!”

Yesterday, or two days ago, you did a strenuous workout for the first time in your life (or for the first time in a while). You dutifully did your squats, push-ups, and rows (if you followed the Beginner Bodyweight workout), or you did some barbell squats or deadlifts or pull-ups. Or maybe you decided to run a 5k just for kicks.

And during the workout, you may have felt pretty good!

That was two days ago, though. When you woke up yesterday, every muscle in your body felt like it was hit by a mac-truck. “Welp, this sucks, but at least tomorrow things should be better,” you tell your brain.

And holy crap, it’s like your body forgot how to function. Maybe your arms are stuck in the permanent t-rex position. Perhaps your groin is tight in places you didn’t even realize you could be sore. Walking down stairs or doing anything active may feel like trying to play the QWOP game (please take 2 seconds to play this – it will be the hardest you’ve ever laughed).

So, what are you supposed to do:

If it’s been only a day, should you be worried?

Maybe it’s been two days and you are supposed to workout. Do you skip it?

You’re torn between sitting in an ice bath to numb the soreness or climbing into a hot tub until you resemble a prune.

Let me first introduce you to my obnoxious friend, DOMS.

Meet DOMS

DOMS Collapsed

Although you’re probably already familiar, you’ve never been formally introduced to DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness).

First of all, don’t panic. DOMS is totally natural, and you’re going to be fine. Great, even!

In short, DOMS is a result of teeny tiny tears in your muscles from really strenuous activity, meaning you did things that your body is not normally used to.

If you’re brand new to working out or have taken a few weeks off only to jump back in at a high level of stress (heavy squats after a few weeks off), think of DOMS like your muscles saying: in exchange for the recovery I have to do, I’m going make YOU feel it. And actually, although it may not feel like it, this process is TOTALLY normal.

It tends to peak around 48 hours after training, but can occur anytime after your training day (hence the “Delayed” part of DOMS).

Note: this should definitely feel like a soreness (even a painful or deep soreness is okay), but a sharp pain or severe pain is something you should speak to your doctor about.

So, think of our friend DOMS like an obnoxious friend complaining:

“Whoa whoa whoa, I didn’t sign up for this much activity. You just did a lot of things I’m not used to. So I’m going to piss you off tomorrow and make you super sore. And the day after that? It’s going to be WORSE.”

What an ass! Like most bros, our boy DOMS hates Leg Day and wants you to skip it (like he and all the other bros do). So you may notice that DOMS tends to punish you more for big compound lifts like squats, deadlifts, lunges, etc.

Is Doms Good for Me Or Bad For Me?

gladiator thumbs up or down

Now you’re thinking, “I read on a motivational poster once “No Pain, No Gain!” … is that true?”

What you’re really asking is: “is this muscle soreness good for me? Does that mean it’s working? What about TOO much soreness?”

When you exercise (especially strength train), you’re breaking down your muscles, and over the next few days they are rebuilding themselves up stronger.

But if you are SUPPOSED to break down your muscles, then soreness is good. And if SOME soreness is good, then DOMS should be your new best friend because it means it’s REALLY working, right? Maybe.

THE TRUTH: Yes, being sore after a workout can be a sign that you adequately pushed your muscles hard to elicit a response from them – especially if you haven’t worked out that hard in a while. So, DOMS is that friend you want to see occasionally, but not a friend you want to hang out with every day.

This means that once you get used to this level of training, DOMS will go away and you can make huge progress in your training without this soreness.

This means:

Don’t think that you need to be sore in order to get a good workout. DOMS goes away quickly and most of your progress will come without DOMS.

DOMS isn’t a total friend though. You might feel so sore and stiff and tight that you don’t think you could possibly work out today (even though it’s a scheduled workout day).

So, some soreness is good, but don’t go searching to destroy yourself in a single session. We’re after real, long term progress, remember?

That’s why we subscribe to eight-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney’s motto: “stimulate, not annihilate” method of training at Nerd Fitness. I don’t want you puking, I don’t want you so sore you can’t move, I don’t want you so tired at the end of a workout that you just want to lie down on a mat and die.

Yup, it’s tough to find that balance, especially if you’re brand new to training and have no idea what level of soreness you should feel. Most people first feel DOMS and think something is wrong, when in fact that level of soreness is totally normal.

Don’t be afraid to take a trial and error, self-experimentation mindset!

Of course, if you’re sitting there right now with T-rex arms and leg muscles so sore you’re like Tin Man, you’re probably thinking the following:

Luckily, the next section is for you.

What do I do Today Though?

So you’ve met DOMS, and whether it’s been 24 or 48 or 72 hours, he’s pretty much immobilized you.  I realize the following is going to sound counterintuitive, but trust me:

You’re going to do your workout today. If it’s the day after the workout, you’re going to do some light activity.

Is it two days after (aka your next workout)? Yup, you’re going to go through a solid warm-up, and no matter how sore you are, you’re going to do your next workout. You see, when you exercise, you’re increasing blood flow to your muscles. By putting your body through the motions, you’re actually speeding up your recovery.

No, this will not cause further damage to your muscles. In fact, this is the best possible way to improve the soreness you’re currently feeling. Yes, it’s going to suck for the first few repetitions, but each repetition is exercising those sore muscles, stretching them back out, and making them less sore. Think of it like you’re showing your muscles there’s really nothing to be afraid of.

Movement is the best cure for soreness. 

That’s why if you’re feeling sore the day immediately after, you can stretch, take a walk, and perform light versions of your movements in order to expedite the healing process!

So when in doubt, move and stretch. This can be done throughout the day, when you wake up, before, during, and after your workout. Just MOVE MORE!

Just remember that because you’re so sore and tight, your range of motion initially will be much smaller than a few days prior.

If you want to help fighting off DOMS, consider mixing in some Nerd Fitness Yoga on your off days to speed up recovery and elongate those muscles!

TL;DR:

  • Don’t fear DOMS.
  • Keep to your workout schedule.
  • Use light activity and stretching to recover quicker and feel better.

What other questions do you have about our obnoxious friend DOMS?

-Steve

###

photo source: B. Baltimore Brown: Gym Floor, istolethetv: workout tired, Screenshot, Gladiator

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  • Erin

    One of the best “cures” for DOMS – especially for day-after-leg-day pain – that I’ve found is light cycling around the neighborhood. It’s a very low-impact way to get blood flowing.

  • gtwade

    I’ve been working with a trainer for the past 3 weeks, 4 times a week, and those workouts kick my butt. But the next day I don’t really have DOMS. There is certainly soreness, but it’s like it’s in the background. I think I’m getting a good workout; but I also drink a LOT of water, at least 2-3 liters a day. This week it’s been like 4-5 liters! I think this has something to do with it.

  • Alys Persson

    Epsom salts soak and super slow aerobic activity! I learned this during training for a 50k. 😉

  • kdizz

    I think I look forward to DOMS, which is probably just as bad as fearing it. I have to remind myself that feeling sore does not a good workout make, but I have to admit that I love the burn (it makes me feel badass!). But when the burn goes away, THAT is when I start wondering if I am not doing enough.

  • Ben Stark

    I find some nice steady zone 2 work on days between weight/ anaerobic work helps recover from DOM.

  • HookahGuru

    DOMS is the effin worst! It’s taking me out for 3 days at a time but Steve is right, you HAVE to workout, even just a little. Since working with a trainer once a week, he’s shown me how to foam roll which has almost taken my DOMS to zero. I also keep a portable roller at work. I tried the salt bath thing, but that did nothing. Everyone is different and will figure out what works for them. I found that stretching before and after workouts made my DOMS worse, not sure why since I’ve cut that out, I’m good. Like Dory, just keep swimming!

  • kmart

    Two days ago I walked the equivalent of about 10 miles in NYC (visiting from Baltimore), so last night I ended up rubber-banding a bag of peas to each of my legs and watching a few movies…I may feel awful yesterday and today, but hopefully after that workout those 10 miles will be a little easier for me next time! (…cardio and leg endurance is hard haha)

  • Jennifer Nelson

    (´;︵;`) <– This is me after doing the Beginner Bodyweight Circuit ONE time, on Tuesday. Ouch ouch ouch ouch ouch. (I've just started working out again after surgery and 8 weeks of no lifting.) So! Thank you for this article, it's very timely. I'll just do my one little circuit (plus one rep of each exercise!), stretch, and soak in an epsom salts bath. ^_^

  • http://www.iamericm.com/ Eric M Hunter

    I love reading these. Awesome work as always sir.

  • Religion0

    Great info and good tips, definitely something I’ll keep in mind. However, I do wing chun for exercise and as such do a lot of punching and twisting of my arms and wrists, this results in a lot of soreness in my joints and tendons as well as my muscles (and skin and bones,but that’s iron palming). Should I have the same attitude to that soreness or should I maybe skip the punching session for a day or two?

  • Thomas Ginter

    Thanks so much for this post!! When I first started with Nerd Fitness workouts I was so sore on day two that I could barely move. Although tempted to reduce or skip my workout on that day I did it anyway and was surprised I could still do squats. DOMS has never been that bad since. I find walking on my off days and getting up and moving around at least once per hour on my on days greatly reduces the amount of DOMS I get. I have also learned to appreciate feeling some amount of DOMS after a workout because it makes me feel like there is progress being made. DOMS is just strength in creation.

  • Tony Langdon

    DOMS now only visits after a slight break or a change in workouts/activities, otherwise it’s not that common for me, because I maintain a high level of training year round. I’m a big believer in light recovery work the day after a big workout – walking, a light jog, running in water, to name a few.

    If I’m training during a DOMS episode (i.e. 48-72 hours after the session that led to DOMS), I take a bit more time with the warmup, before getting stuck into my normal routine.

  • Jackie Stone Friedland

    I want to know why my hubby is NEVER sore. He is only sore if he hurts himself. He has a high pain tolerance (like abnormally high). Could that be it? Makes me jealous but then I guess I enjoy my soreness because it tells me I’m doing something.

  • Jackie Stone Friedland

    BTW even when he stopped working out for a year and then went into a HIIT style kickboxing class…still nothing.

  • Will

    I’ve been reading this blog for a while now, and two days ago, I decided to stop collecting underpants and I tried out a bodyweight circuit for the first time in months. The fact that this article came rolling in when it did is incredibly spooky! I’m still feeling the burn, but I’m going to be sure to give it my all tonight!

  • Stephanie

    Steve, I’d really like to know how you found the QWOP game!?!?!

  • Kathie

    Thanks for answering my most asked question (mainly to myself). I have been wondering if I could be doing more damage and maybe I should take it easy for a couple of days. I am 56 and completely out of shape (haven’t worked out in 20 yrs) so I worry about doing long term damage at my age. Great article!

  • http://busyboldblessed.blogspot.com/ Amber @ Busy, Bold, Blessed

    Timely post as my quads are currently smoked from CrossFit yesterday. Haven’t been going on a regular basis… so here I am meeting my buddy DOMS. Definitely going to get a nice stretching and light workout session in this evening.

  • Rhiannion

    A Massage with warm castor oil.

  • http://mohammedissablog.wordpress.com/ mohammed issa

    just stay in bed for the day, and eat some meat

  • Alice Mansfield

    How long do DOMS last for? I understand it normaly last a couple of days but if your still sore a week or 2 weeks after the workout that gave you the pain/discomfort dispite doing lower intensity exercise is that still DOMS? Or is that an injury? How do I tell good pain from bad pain?

  • Naseer

    This is fantastic blog and I like this article.
    http://healthyworldnews.blogspot.com/

  • Kris

    Yikes, such a challenge – get up and move around when you’re so sore you just want to do nothing. So important to schedule easy days into your workouts. But not many of us do that, do we?

  • kwood

    I walk and stretch arms on treadmill for at least, 30 min.before and after, my weights workout. I am never really sore at all, the next day. Someone told me that, this exercise B&A burns off the stuff in your muscles, that end up making you sore after a workout
    . Whatever it is, this has always worked for me!

  • http://www.defensesoap.com/ Rebecca Dawkins

    If it’s DOMS, just warm up thoroughly at the beginning of your next scheduled workout and keep going. My experience has been that my soreness after the next workout is milder than what I would expect to feel if I had rested and done nothing.

  • Beast Woman

    If I have a post-workout recovery drink, I find I have zero soreness. If I skip the drink I’m sore for DAYS, no matter how much water I drink or how much I stretch. (I don’t drink the neon-colored stuff; Vega Sport Recovery Accelerator in Tropical is my go-to. I add ice and drink it while stretching.)

  • http://www.gokufitness.com/ Hamza Zoubir

    Funny thing is, the soreness will disappear (temporarily) when you do a workout.

  • Don

    NO! If it lasts more than 72 hours then you need to start taking a look at the potential that you have sustained an injury. Stop the activity, and make plans to see a doctor. There is quite certainly a strong possibility that you are re-aggravating your injury.
    A good way I’ve found to determine DOMS vs injury is the sensation when you stretch. If the pain when you are static is a dense tension (almost like a mounting Charlie horse before it gets to full contraction), but then as you stretch out the muscle it feels like the whole muscle is experiencing a (pardon the controversial term from my childhood) “indian sunburn” then you’re looking at DOMS. After the stretch you will also likely feel a sensation similar to the blood rushing back into a limb after it’s fallen asleep and been woken up. Conversely, if you move and the pain is a constant, sharp, sometimes stabbing pain, it.is.not.DOMS! Get it looked at.
    Hope that helps!

  • Frankie

    Literally 100 push-ups 100 sit-ups and 100 squats killed my whole body but I need to get back on my training from before

  • GettingHealthy45

    I am somewhat new to the scene I wrestled in high school which entitled me to run and lift weights and such and that was okay. I get it you have to burn for it to help.

    After about 15 years though I have started to try to get back into shape. I used to do the occasional walk around the neighborhood or something but never really exercised (very rarely).

    I would do Yoga on Tuesdays and Thursdays and Saturdays and did Cardio training on Monday, Wednesdays, and Fridays and light cardio on Saturdays. After a week and a half of this training my body is so sore. (this was actually suggested as part of my beginning training as push ups were streinous for me) one of my cardio exercises is to do a push up of sorts while on the stairs that way I don’t have a full incline of having to push upwards but just partially if that makes sense. This seemed to work great for me so I kept doing it.

    But wow I was somewhat sore Wednesday but passed it off as the no pain no game. Today though ( Friday ) I am hurting quite a bit. It isn’t like injury/stabbing pain but I am hurting bad. My body won’t even let me do a pushup on the stars it’s that sore.

    What do you suggest?