Spin left you all sweaty. That sprint workout had you breathing heavy. And you thought you busted your butt with those kettlebells. But the next morning, you can walk down the stairs just fine — no soreness. Um, hello, where’s the payoff of a hard workout?
Those aches we’re talking about is called DOMS — or delayed onset muscle soreness, which shows up 24 to 48 hours post-exercise. “Your muscles are like tightly woven nylon. Exercise causes small micro-tears in muscle fibers,” explains fitness expert Chris Ryan, CSCS. And it’s a good thing. It means you overloaded your muscles and created damage in those fibers. During the process of repair, your muscles adapt and you get stronger.
So a little hurt is great. But here’s the thing: “You don’t need to be sore after every workout, and you don’t want to be,” says exercise physiologist Marta Montenegro, CSCS. “If you’re constantly sore, you’re not giving muscles enough time to recover and adapt, so they can give you more the next time.”
And then there’s the mental downside of all those aches. “Studies show if you have a bad experience being too sore, that may prevent you from working out again for fear of the pain,” says Montenegro.
What Your Muscle Soreness Means
Not every workout should make walking or lifting the next day a serious chore, but it is necessary sometimes. “If you’re never sore, you probably aren’t going hard enough,” says Ryan.
Montenegro recommends that every two to three weeks you should push yourself in a new way. That might be going up in weight on your bicep curls or trying a new class if you usually run on your own. The next day, your muscles should feel it.
“That tells you that you are taking your body out of its usual routine and shaking things up,” Montenegro says. It also ensures that your body isn’t getting too efficient with your current workout du jour, which translates into less calorie burn.
Keep in mind that DOMS feels like general muscle soreness, which should disappear in three days. If the pain is localized and sticks around for longer than that, it’s time to get checked out, because it could be a more serious injury.
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When You Know Your Workout Worked
“You don’t need to be sore after every workout, and you don’t want to be.”
While “ugh I can’t lift my arms” is a solid indication that you’ve worked your muscles to the max, it’s not the only way to tell you put in work. Research shows that relying on your ache factor doesn’t tell the whole story on how hard you pushed. That’s because some people may be more genetically prone to soreness than others. Plus, the perception of pain differs from person to person.
No matter what the activity, your workouts should do three things: make you breathe harder, make you sweat and make your heart rate rise, says Ryan. Aim to check off those three things and you know you aced your gym class.
Keep in mind, a few key training techniques also lead to less soreness, but still build muscle and burn calories. For instance, eccentric movements (or the downward phase of an exercise), tend to lead to more stiffness. So if you concentrate on working in the concentric motion — say by lifting up on a count of three and down on a count of one — you’ll likely still feel loose the next day. Pool workouts also help with this, thanks to their low-gravity, low-impact environment.
Oh, and just an aside: The length of your workout doesn’t necessarily matter in terms of getting in a good workout, either. So don’t think you need to hit the magical hour mark to make your sweat time effective. (Just try this 20-minute treadmill workout and you’ll see what we mean.) Even more importantly: Any workout you do will burn more calories than simply sitting on the couch. So keep that in mind if you’re deciding between Netflix or a lighter sweat sesh.
How to Cope with Muscle Soreness
When you wake up sore, the worst thing to do is sit around and wait for it to go away, says Montenegro. “Being sedentary means less blood flow and less nutrients to muscles, which means it will take you longer to recover,” she says.
So do a light workout the next day. If you run, take a walk. If you’re all about CrossFit, fit in some cardio or head to the pool. Don’t think these days are a waste of time either — that’s when the magic happens. Your muscles don’t get stronger during exercise, but rather after.