Being sore after a workout is often seen as a medal of honor for how hard you worked. It's almost as if you aren’t sore, then you didn’t work hard enough, or you weren’t using your muscles as you should.
While this may be the typical way to judge whether you've had a good workout or not, it's actually not an accurate way to measure such a thing.
Read on to find out what causes muscles soreness, and how best to reduce it!
What Causes Muscle Soreness?
When you work out, you are causing tiny tears in your muscles fibers, actively breaking down your muscles to build up new, stronger muscles.
However, if you overwork your muscles, don’t prep them properly, or fail to adequately recover before your next session, then these tears may not fully heal and develop. This is essentially what muscle soreness is.
Soreness also happens if you are using muscles you may have not used in a while. Again, for the same reason, the tears that form will take a little longer to recover if you haven't used them in a while.
Not being sore is actually a good thing post-workout. Our bodies have a threshold for the amount of exercise our muscles can do, depending on our fitness level, hydration status, pre-and post-workout nutrition, and so on.
If you work out and don’t feel sore afterward, that means your body has adapted to your workouts and you are getting stronger. You may find that you get sore easily if you are new to exercising, but this is simply your body adapting to the stimulus and is all part of the process.
The more you exercise, the less soreness you will feel over time!
Other Causes of Muscle Soreness
As we mentioned, there are a lot of other things that go into whether or not you are sore post-workout. Prep before a workout is one of these things.
Making sure that your muscles have the proper fuel to get them through a workout will help reduce soreness. The more your muscles have to work, even for simple exercises, the sorer you’re going to be.
Carbohydrates provide the best fuel pre-workout for your muscles. Hydration can also play a big role. Imagine a chunk of sand. If there is water in it, the sand will stick together and be strong. If there is no water and it is completely dry, then the sand will fall apart and be weak.
Your muscles are very similar. Dry, dehydrated muscles will be weak and tear easier, leaving you sore and unlikely to finish your workout.
Recovery is the other side of this coin. If you are working out multiple days in a row and not giving your muscles what they need to properly recover, then the tears will just keep getting worse along with your soreness.
You need to give your muscles a chance to recover and heal, so you can grow more muscle before you create more damage. Food also plays a role, just like how your muscles need fuel for a workout, they need the fuel post-workout to help recovery.
Carbohydrates and protein provide your muscles with fuel to recover, and amino acids to help build new, stronger muscle.
4 Tips For an Effective Workout
1. Dynamic stretching
Stretching is super important for helping to prevent sore muscles and injuries. It helps get your muscle ready for the workout you're about to do. Studies have shown that stretching before and after a workout reduces soreness post-workout.1
But there is a proper way to do it. Sitting in a stretch isn’t going to help much. Dynamic warmups where you are moving through a stretch to slowly warm up your muscles are the best approach pre-workout.
2. Avoid rushing your workout
Rushing a workout is not going to make you stronger quicker, though it will make you sore quicker. Take your time going through your movements and workouts and make sure you are using the correct form.
Both of these things factors will make your workout more effective and lead to less soreness later on. It's better to take your time and focus on a handful of exercises rather than speed through 20 exercises improperly.
3. Carbohydrate intake
Most fad diets will tell you that carbs are the enemy, but they are actually your body's preferred fuel source.
Consuming carbs before a workout will give you the energy to get through a workout and help your muscles stay strong. They are even more effective when combined with protein post-workout to assist recovery.
As we talked about before, hydration is key for muscle soreness. While you work out, you can lose up to 6-10% of your body weight in fluids in sweat.2
This can make your workout feel harder, reduce your exercise performance and reduce your ability to properly recover. You should try to drink ½-1 oz of water per lb of body weight per day to make sure you are adequately hydrated before you begin your workout.
Working out can be hard enough, so the recovery part shouldn’t also be hard. Making sure you are adequately hydrated, consuming enough carbs and protein before and after, stretching and warming up, and taking your time with your workout can make all the difference in whether you’re going to be sore or adequately recovered.
Try out these tips next time you workout to optimize your exercise and recovery for the most effective workout possible.
Being sore doesn’t always mean you did your best in the gym. Next time, focus on our tips to make sure you are taking care of your muscles and treating them the best you can!
- Herbert RD, de Noronha M, Kamper SJ. Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011 Jul 6;(7):CD004577. PMID: 21735398.
- Popkin BM, D'Anci KE, Rosenberg IH. Water, hydration, and health. Nutr Rev. 2010;68(8):439-458.