February 6th, 2024
Post-workout soreness, commonly known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS for short), is a familiar sensation for most. For some, the ache is a satisfying feeling; you know you’ve challenged yourself and are growing stronger. For others, it can be an uncomfortable nuisance. Whether you like the feeling or not, DOMS can leave you pondering whether it’s acceptable to push through the discomfort and exercise or if it’s better to let your body rest.
Well, we have to give you the same (somewhat annoying) answer that applies to most questions in the realm of fitness: that depends! There are many factors to consider when deciding whether or not to train on sore muscles, and as mobile and virtual personal trainers, we examine each case individually.
Here are a few things to consider next time you’re deciding whether or not to take a rest day due to sore muscles:
Deciding to take a rest day
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is common after engaging in physical activities that involve unfamiliar or intense exercise. It typically manifests as muscle discomfort, stiffness, and tenderness, peaking 24 to 72 hours after a workout. However, in some cases, DOMS can occur just a few hours after activity.
Contrary to popular belief, DOMS is not solely caused by lactic acid – a bodily compound produced in your muscles (and other bodily tissues) during intense physical activity or when there is an insufficient supply of oxygen to meet energy demands. Rather, DOMS is likely the result of microscopic damage to muscle fibres during muscle-lengthening (eccentric) contractions and forceful, unfamiliar exercises. This muscle damage triggers an inflammatory response, which contributes to the soreness and stiffness of DOMS.
As the body repairs and adapts to exercise-induced stress, muscles become stronger and more resilient. This is how we build strength over time. That said, muscle soreness in general is still “an active area of research and one that will hopefully lead to new and more effective treatments for not only those experiencing minor muscle soreness, but also those living with chronic muscular pain” (Forbes Health, 2023). While post-exercise DOMS can be uncomfortable, for most, it’s a natural part of the adaptation process that accompanies physical training and fitness.
FACTORS TO CONSIDER
The first thing to consider when deciding whether or not to train on sore muscles is the intensity of your soreness. Mild soreness may indicate your muscles are adapting to new challenges and could benefit from light exercise. Severe soreness may suggest your muscles need more time to repair, and exercising could exacerbate the damage. Remember: strength is built at rest, so training too soon can diminish or prevent results.
Secondly, you need to think about the type of exercise you’re doing. Low-impact activities like walking or swimming may be gentler on sore muscles compared to high-impact or heavy resistance training. A great tactic is to alternate exercise forms and/or movements to engage different muscle groups. This allows appropriate recovery in the affected areas while keeping your level of activity high.
Another area of importance is personal tolerance. Everyone’s pain threshold varies, and what might be manageable soreness for one person may be debilitating for another. Pay attention to your body’s signals and avoid pushing yourself to the point of pain.
Lastly, think about your overall health and fitness level. A well-conditioned individual may find light exercise on sore muscles beneficial for improving blood flow and reducing stiffness. Beginners or those returning to exercise after a hiatus may require more recovery time.
PROS OF EXERCISING WITH DOMS
One of the most useful reasons for exercising on sore muscles is increased blood flow. Light exercise can enhance blood circulation, delivering oxygen and nutrients to muscles, which can “stimulate the recovery process without imposing undue stress” (Cleveland Clinic, 2022). This explains why soreness can sometimes diminish after completing a workout on stiff muscles, as engaging in low-intensity activities promotes active recovery.
Continuing to stay active on sore muscles can also be important for those who find that light exercise reduces their stress levels, as exercise plays a key role in our mental health. If you’re too sore for an intense workout but need a physical outlet for mental relief, opt for a low-intensity session like walking or yoga.
We also recommend you stay active if you struggle to maintain the momentum of your fitness routine. Sometimes a rest day can throw you off the consistency train, which is another reason to opt for continued low intensity exercise between more challenging workouts.
POTENTIAL CONS OF EXERCISING WITH DOMS
The most dangerous risk when exercising on sore muscles is injury. Excessive exercise on already fatigued muscles can lead to overtraining, burnout, and decreased performance. Sore muscles may also alter your biomechanics, leading to compromised form and an increased likelihood of mistakes during more strenuous activities.
It can be difficult to decipher the level of activity that’s right for you, especially if you’re new to regular exercise. Whether in home, online, or at the gym, hiring an experienced virtual or mobile personal trainer is a fantastic way to ensure your exercise routine is safe and effective.
Whether or not you should exercise on sore muscles is a nuanced decision that depends on various factors. Listening to your body, understanding the severity of soreness, and choosing appropriate activities are key components of making this decision. While light exercise can have benefits, it’s crucial to strike a balance to avoid overtraining and ensure adequate recovery. Pay attention to your body’s signals, modify your workout intensity accordingly, and remember that rest is an integral part of any effective fitness routine.
want some help?
A personal trainer can help you determine whether – and how much – to push yourself when experiencing DOMS. If you’ve ever thought about hiring one, we invite you reach out to us first for a complimentary first workout and fitness assessment.
Our team of trainers work with clients of all ages and fitness levels with a special focus on working with older adults and those with special needs. We have trainers available to help in Toronto, London, Hamilton, Collingwood and Ottawa. Get in touch with us today to get on the path to wellness!