Are sore muscles cramping your workout? Here's how to fix it

Pro tips for preventing and reducing post-workout soreness.

Pro tips for preventing and reducing post-workout soreness

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

No pain, no gain? Not necessarily. While we like to "feel the burn" during exercise, what about that deep muscle soreness you feel after an intense workout? That's actually delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), a pain and stiffness that can typically be felt after 24 hours and can peak 48-72 hours post-workout. It's your body's natural reaction to repairing its muscles after an exceptional amount of stress, and it can literally cramp your style. We talked to Jason Smith, registered physiotherapist and certified personal trainer at Grand River Sports Medicine Centre, about some of the dos and don'ts for dealing with muscle soreness or avoiding it altogether.


DO a dynamic warm-up. "A dynamic warm-up generally involves gradually warming up the working tissues", says Smith, "putting them through the range of motion that they'll be subjected to during the workout." Dynamic warm-ups are performed rhythmically and no stretch movements are held for longer than three seconds, with the goal being to "oxygenate the working muscles and joint tissue, bringing fresh blood flow that will be readily available during exercise." Smith believes dynamic warm-ups should specifically "warm-up the tissues and systems to be used during the workout" as well as "promote wakefulness, alertness and improve reaction time." A general example of a dynamic warm-up would be to go through a quick circuit of the exercises you're about to perform with little or no weight.

DON'T do static stretching. While it may seem like a good idea, static stretching (holding a stretch for a prolonged period of time), is not a good idea when your muscles aren't yet warmed. "Static stretching before exercise can predispose us to strains and sprains of the overstretched tissue," says Smith, and it can also hamper your muscles' performance. The one exception is if you are rehabbing an injury where a healthcare professional has advised you to stretch the area for a specific purpose.

During exercise

DO use appropriate rest periods. Going "all out" with no rest is a fast track to overtraining and sore or strained muscles and it's not nearly as beneficial as proper breaks between sets. "For strength training," says Smith, "proper rest is needed in between sets to achieve your desired goals. Not allowing adequate rest will not allow us to perform as heavy or as many repetitions, thus sapping us of potential strength gains." As a general rule, shorter rest periods (around one minute) are best for endurance goals and longer rest periods (three to five minutes) are better for strength training. If you wish, you can maintain mobility by performing similar light/no weight movements during rest periods, to keep your body and mind focused on the next set.

DON'T do static stretch here either. Patience, young static stretcher, your time will come.

Post exercise

DO cool down. Instead of stopping abruptly, gradually reduce the intensity of your exercise to smoothly transition your body into the next phase of your workout. Whether that's performing more moderate flexibility exercises or performing cardio at a steadily slower pace, taking five minutes to decrease your heart rate is an essential step.

DO foam roll.  "Foam rolling or self-myofascial release involves creating pressure on muscular adhesions to release tight connective tissue," says Smith, noting "It works best in combination with static stretching", loosening up the muscles before lengthening them. You can foam roll anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes per muscle group and Smith suggests spending particular time on tight or sore muscles. While a standard foam roller or lacrosse ball are popular options, there are plenty other tools for self-myofascial release

DO static stretch. "Well-oxygenated and warm muscles are more receptive to a stretch stimulus," says Smith, so finally, the time has come. Instead of going for your maximum flexibility right away, Smith advises gradually increasing the stretch intensity and duration, starting off with 10 second holds and working your way up to 60-90 seconds for three repetitions.

DON'T overstretch. Smith suggests stretching a minimum of two times per week is enough to keep flexible and it's also important to keep other body parts stable (like your neck or your lower back) while stretching targeted muscles, to make sure your entire body stays strain-free. "Stretches should be felt equally throughout the entire muscle belly," says Smith, "If the stretch feels overly local to one small area of the muscle, this may be a sign that you're about to overstretch," so lower the intensity in favour of listening to your body.

Training when injured or sore

Training with major injuries (something more serious than DOMS) can be a very complex issue. "Our ability to train when injured," says Smith, "depends upon the area of body injured, the injury severity, the phase of recovery, and the type of exercise desired," so it's always best to first seek professional advice. To reduce DOMS pain, Smith suggests "increasing warmth in the muscle by using compression garments or clothing." Cryotherapy may seem promising, but skeptical studies makes its effectiveness inconclusive.

If you have severe or chronic DOMS, it may be an indicator that you're overtraining, so Smith warns that "strenuous exercise should not be completed, and more recovery is needed", giving yourself a few more days before training again.

Training hard is only effective and beneficial if you prime your muscles, recuperate them and give yourself enough time to recover. Though some soreness is normal, finding that optimal range of work and rest, while always listening to your body, is the key to making your hard work safe and effective.


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