Active Recovery

3 of the Most Common Spots for Post-Workout Inflammation, According to a Sports Medicine Doc

Zoe Weiner

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There are two types of post-workout inflammation: The good kind, which happens as a result of your muscles getting stronger, and the bad kind, which indicates that you may have done something to hurt yourself. The first is an inevitable side-effect of any sort of exercise, because when you strength train, you’re creating itty bitty tears in your muscles (which is what ultimately helps make those muscles stronger). The second kind, though, is likely due to some sort of overuse, and can be a literal pain to deal with—especially in certain parts of your body.

The most common spots that are likely to get hit? Your knees, shoulders, and lower back. “Let’s say you exercise and your knee all of a sudden swells up. That inflammation is probably due to something happening in the knee joint itself as opposed to the muscles around it,” says Alexis Colvin, MD, an orthopedic sports medicine surgeon at the Mount Sinai Health System. “And that’s something you would want to calm down.”

While this type of inflammation can happen any time you’re exercising, you’re at a much higher risk for it when you first go back to a fitness routine after taking some time off—like, say, after a multi-month quarantine. “There’s going to be a level of de-conditioning that happens when people aren’t able to leave their home, so once we start to be more active, walking more and taking stairs more, it won’t be unusual to have soreness—even just from the increased activity of going on your commute,” says Dr. Colvin. “People are going to have to ease back into their normal routines.

The best way to do this, she says, is to take things slow and space your workouts accordingly. “Make sure you’re switching it up and cross training, and aren’t doing HIIT seven days a week,” says Dr. Colvin. “Also, be sure to take the time to do things like stretching, yoga, and Pilates where you’re still challenging your body but aren’t necessarily banging it up.” Keep scrolling for how Dr. Colvin says to safeguard the most inflammation-prone parts of the body.

1. Knees

Impact exercises, like running and jumping, can be intense on your joints, and your knees tend to get the brunt of it. “If you haven’t done impact exercises in a while, and you do HIIT classes or even squats and lunges, it’s not unusual for it to bring on discomfort,” says Dr. Colvin. She adds that even slower, lower-intensity modalities, like barre and Pilates, can also cause inflammation in the knees because of the small, repetitive movements these workouts require. Be sure to ease yourself back into a routine—if you’re a runner, for example, start gradually with walking, biking, or the elliptical, and then progress back to running—in order to avoid inflammation.

2. Shoulders

Shoulders are one of those sneaky muscles that you often don’t realize you’re working until they start to burn (planks, anyone?). And if you’re not careful, inflammation in the area will cause you to continue to feel that burn long after your workout is over. When people go back to classes that involve a lot of kettlebells or activities that normally you wouldn’t do with your shoulders, it can cause inflammation,” says Dr. Colvin. She suggests dynamic stretching, ice, and foam-rolling—which can be used to treat inflammation across the board—as a way to keep them feeling ok.

3. Lower back

“People spend a lot of time sitting, not necessarily with great posture, and that leads to inflammation in the back after a workout,” says Dr. Colvin. To prevent this, the best thing you can do is work your core. “If you’re only going to work one muscle, make it your core,” she says. One easy way to do it? Follow along with this eight-minute series, which you can do anywhere, any time.

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