Feeling sore after a workout can feel like an accomplishment. It’s physical proof that you got your muscles working. But, of course, muscle soreness can also be uncomfortable, and if you’re unbearably sore after every workout, you might not be as motivated to hit the gym. Muscle soreness is definitely normal. But, if your arms are always aching and you can barely walk up the stairs after each workout sesh, you might find yourself wondering if something is wrong. In most cases, feeling sore after a workout is a good thing. However, you’ll want to make sure that you’re not pushing yourself too hard and putting yourself at risk for injury.
“A little muscle fatigue and soreness after workouts is completely normal, especially if you’re trying different types of workouts and consistently progressing,” says Certified Personal Trainer Mike Martin. “However, if you’re sore to the level of not being able to move for several days after every workout, you may be doing more harm than good and overdoing it.”
To make better sense of how much muscle soreness is normal, it can help to understand what causes muscle soreness in the first place.
What is muscle soreness?
Generally, you get sore because you’re putting your body under more stress from working out than it has been used to. This can include running longer distances, doing more reps, or adding more weight than you’re accustomed to. Usually, this is a good sign of progress. Muscle soreness can also occur when you haven’t worked out for a while and you get back into your routine.
The soreness you feel is generated by micro-tears in muscle tissue, and the healing process that comes afterward. “This typically happens during the eccentric phase of the exercise, when a heavy load is placed on the muscle at its most stretched point,” says Certified Personal Trainer Heather L. Tyler, NSCA-CPT. “Think the release of a bicep curl, going into a squat, or running downhill. Afterward, the body sets to work repairing the damaged muscle, and the mixture of inflammation and the immune system’s response to healing the tissue can cause muscles to feel sore,” she explains.
Muscle soreness usually occurs 24 to 72 hours after exercise. This is why the process is referred to as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). “It’s a common response when the body is performing new exercises, beginning or returning to exercise, or when straining the muscles more than, or in different ways than, before,” says Tyler.
How frequently should you be getting sore?
Each time you change up your routine; increase training frequency, load, or intensity; or reduce recovery time, chances are that you will experience some level of muscle soreness. “This is normal,” says Tyler. “Your body is adapting to new training loads and your muscles are getting stronger, repairing themselves along the way.”
However, as your body adapts and you stay in a similar training zone, you should experience less soreness over time. “DOMS doesn’t occur after every workout, but if you are working out a muscle that you haven’t worked in a while, you may get sore afterward,” says Aaptiv Trainer John Thornhill.
What does it mean if you get sore after every workout?
Experiencing muscle soreness after every workout can mean a few things. If you are just a little sore, it means that you’re consistently progressing and challenging yourself, which is a positive. Some people also experience soreness more intensely and more frequently than others due to genetic predispositions. Additionally, if you allow a longer period of time to pass between workouts, that can cause soreness too. “If you do an intense set of weighted exercises, feel sore, then take a few weeks off, you’ll most likely feel sore again after you pick up those dumbbells again,” says Thornhill.
However, if you feel significant muscle soreness after each workout you do, you may be pushing yourself too hard. “If you are experiencing soreness after every workout, chances are you are going too far, too fast,” says Tyler. “Allow your body time to adapt to the training load. If you don’t allow the muscles time to heal, they won’t be ready to handle increased loads and will have reduced range of motion, which will cause you injury sooner rather than later.”
What can you do to feel less sore?
If you are someone who experiences muscle soreness often, there are some things you can do to alleviate discomfort. First, adequately warming up should help. “Your blood should be flowing, your body should be warm, your joints should go through dynamic movements, and you should do a nice full-body stretch at the end of the workout,” says Tyler. Allow your body to recover by staying hydrated, getting adequate sleep, and eating anti-inflammatory foods. Foam rolling can assist with recovery, as well.
Overall, muscle soreness is normal, and it isn’t something to be feared. “Soreness is a sign of strength and change to come,” says Thornhill. It may not feel good to feel that heaviness in your thighs, but just know that you got those muscles working, and you’re only getting stronger.