“I’m sore” is my favorite excuse for skipping a day at the gym. Really, who wants to suffer through squat thrusts when their quads are already on fire from an intense spin class the day before? Not me, that’s for sure. According to the pros, soreness isn’t quite a foolproof “get out of jail free” card. As awful as it may feel to claw yourself out of bed and get to the gym, there are certain exercises that can actually help you get through the stiffness.
In order to understand how to work through your soreness, you first need to understand what it actually is. A particularly intense workout will leave you sore because of the stress you put on your muscles while you were exercising. Exerting your muscles creates micro tears in them, and when those heal it’s what makes you stronger, making the “sore phase” part of the healing process. “When you work out during the ‘sore-phase,’ it feels more difficult because the body is still healing from the work out before,” says Keren Day, DC and founder of Racked Stretch. “The painful sensation happens because your body is already using energy to heal your muscles. It’s like pushing on a bruise on the surface of the skin. It hurts because the body has sent healing components to clean up the area—those inflammatory components signal pain when the area gets touched as a protective mechanism.” This, of course, is different than pain, and it’s important not to confuse the two. Soreness will usually be more evenly distributed throughout the body, and will resolve itself after a few days. An injury will stick around in one spot, keep its intensity, and stick around even after you’ve given it some rest (so yeah, see a doc).
If you don’t want to give soreness the glory of forcing you to take a day off, there are certain things you can do at the gym that will make it feel better. “Gentle workouts or light to moderate cardio can actually help increase blood flow to the sore area, warming it up and help decrease that feeling of soreness more quickly,” says Dr. Day. She recommends activities like walking or lightly jogging to help amp up blood flow; or yoga, dance, or Pilates which get your body moving in a more gentle manner. “Try anything that gets your heart pumping and brings movement to the joints without overtaxing already weak muscles,” she says. So yeah, skip the HIIT.
It’s probably best to give whichever muscles are really feeling the burn from the previous day a break. ‘It’s much harder to safely push yourself in any individual workout when you are already sore,” says Dr. Day. “Because your muscles are weak at the start, you won’t get the same power or output as you normally would.” Plus, there are “diminishing returns” when you work out on sore muscles, so you won’t be getting as much out of your moves anyway. “Recovery time is what allows your muscles to grow stronger, and if you are continuously tearing them without giving them time to rebuild you won’t see the results you want,” says Dr. Day.
Sweat 440 Co-founder Matt Miller suggests building these “soreness days” into your weekly plan. “A good mantra I have is: You don’t have to go hard everyday, but you do have to go,” he says, noting that he schedules lighter lifting and active recovery days around his more hardcore workouts. “Lighter lifting days typically involve single joint exercises that do not put as much stress on the central nervous system. Active recovery days are usually dedicated to light stretching routine or a heated yoga class.” So the more you mix it up, the less likely you are to get hurt—or bored—in the gym.
With all of this in mind, it’s extra important to listen to your body when it’s sore, and pick up the clues that it’s putting down. While you can workout when you’re sore, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. Take it easy and focus on different muscle groups, and you’ll be back to the grind in no time.
We all know foam rolling is really the best way to deal with muscle soreness—here’s how to choose the right one, depending on what you’re dealing with. Plus, how to use a foam roller after every type of workout.
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