We’ve all been there. You show up to the gym more than ready to slay dragons and crush weakness. You hit it hard, every set. Every rep is your absolute best. You also nailed a new personal record ahead of schedule – you’ve never done that much work in a training session until now. By the end of your session, the only way to describe how you feel is used, and you kinda like that. Life is good.
Until the next morning anyways. As you step out of bed and begin the semi-conscious shift back to supporting your bodyweight on your own two legs, something rather sudden happens. The moment your feet acquire bodyweight load, this little voice in the back of your head yells EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEK!
You gasp or shriek if you’ve never felt this sensation before, but most of us just grumble under our breath and accept the fact that your body feels like it’s been torn into a thousand pieces…again. You, my friend, are experiencing Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), and it’s one of life’s greatest pleasures. For all that hard work you did yesterday, your body has decided it would be best to almost immobilize you for the next day or so to allow ample time for healing. Actually, every time you move it’s as if every fiber in your body is being re-torn. Each new staircase transforms into Mt. Kilimanjaro, and getting off the couch requires a precisely calculated effort (with the help of others, of course). Don’t get comfy for too long though, since a couple hours of inactivity may enlighten you with a surprise ripping sensation upon re-initiating movement – and you might even hear it audibly (yep, with your ears).
Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness is a painful condition that is more severe than regular muscle soreness. Typical muscle soreness may start upon completion of vigorous physical activity, like lifting weights, and may last several hours to a day or two. DOMS, on the other hand, may not occur until the following day or days, and it can also last for several days. DOMS is primarily caused by the body’s inflammatory response to exercise. Its frequency and severity are determined by several factors including a trainee’s current conditioning level, age, along with the actual damage done to the muscle and connective tissues and the body’s ability to recover from that damage.
The good news is that both regular muscle soreness and DOMS are mostly preventable and there are some things you can do to speed the recovery process when it does happen.
15 Ways to Prevent and Heal Muscle Soreness
Things you can do before your training session
1) Adequately hydrate yourself - This should go without saying, but it bears repeating. Drinking plenty of water is one of your best defenses against muscle soreness. A good rule of thumb is to drink half an ounce of water per pound of bodyweight. So, if you’re 200 lbs, drink 100 oz of water daily. Sound like a lot? Start chuggin!
2) Front-load your nutrition - The food you eat before you workout is the fuel that your body will use to repair your muscles. Make sure to get plenty of good nutrition the day(s) before a heavy training session. A good rule of thumb for your macronutrient ratios the day before training is 40% protein, 40% carbs, and 20% fats. This should serve as a starting point for individual experimentation. The day of your training session you should be eating a diet high in protein, complex carbs, and “good, healthy” fats.
3) Get plenty of sleep the night(s) before - Again, this is common sense, but if you’re not getting enough quality sleep, then you’re putting your body at a recovery disadvantage from the beginning. 8+ hours should be the minimum before a heavy training day.
Things you can do during your training session
4) Warmup properly - One of the best things you can do to prevent muscles soreness is to perform a joint mobility warmup (a general full-body warmup is preferred, but mobility exercises specific to your exercise selection will work just fine, too), and then to do activity-specific exercises that will prime the sections of your body that you’ll be primarily focusing on during that session. So, if you’re going to be working on squats, for instance, it’s best to include some bodyweight squats in your warmup routine and gradually build up to your desired working intensity level. Your warmup should be both for general preparedness (like increasing your body temperature and the elasticity of your joints), and also specific to the activity that you’re going to do. It’s not enough to just go for a short jog to get your temperature up.
5) Regulate your training intensity - This is another super-important factor in preventing muscle soreness. Put simply, don’t work harder than your body is prepared for. I wrote an entire article on progression in your training program, but the key to remember is to challenge your limits without destroying your body. Stimulate your muscles, don’t annihilate them – good advice from former Mr. Olympia Lee Haney. The more gradually you can increase your performance, the better. Baby steps pay off more in the long haul and they also ensure you’ll prevent DOMS.
6) Shake off the tension between work periods - This is a little secret weapon against muscle soreness, called vibration training. No, you don’t need to stand on one of the high-tech vibrating platforms that they have at high class health clubs. You CAN shake off the tension though, in between sets. You can shake your arms and legs out, even your whole body. I created a tutorial for how to do this here: Vibration Training Video. This simple technique works very well to diminish muscle tension and you don’t need anything to start applying it today. Plus, it has a lot of other cool benefits, too.
7) Establish a cooldown ritual - This is more theory than science, since I haven’t read any literature stating that cooldowns directly prevent DOMS. However, in my experience, those who engage in a workout cooldown ritual are much less likely to suffer from DOMS. Apart from preventing muscle soreness, it’s a good idea anyways. Some joint mobility exercises are ideal here, but what’s most important is that you unload the functional opposite movements that you were training during your session. So, for instance, if you were doing a lot of squatting movements, you’d want to release tension in your hip flexors. Pigeon pose works perfectly for this, as do many other hip flexor stretches. Alternatively, you can create more of a routine by using Prasara Yoga. The perfect cooldown would involve several thorough full body vibrations followed by some targeted joint mobility exercises to improve immediate range of motion at some of your most worked joints, and finished with some Prasara Yoga to release deep tensions that were created during the session.
Things you can do after your training session
8) Get adequate post workout nutrition - There is so much research backing this as a viable recovery strategy, it’s not even debatable anymore. You don’t need to do this, but it will help a lot. Even a post workout shake, like this recipe, will do a lot of good. A good rule of thumb is to consume a carbohydrate to protein ration of 2:1. Eating 50 grams of carbs and 25 grams of protein following your strength session is a good place to begin personal experimentation. I always recommend whole foods over supplements (you’ll notice that supplements didn’t even make my top 15 list).
9) Eat one full meal no more than 2 hours after training - A shake or a snack immediately after your training session is excellent, but an even better strategy is to eat a full meal within an hour or two of your training session. Complex carbs and protein should be abundant in this meal, from foods such as meats, poultry, fish, leafy greens, potatoes, yams, brown rice, couscous, and rolled oats.
10) Perform active recovery frequently - Too often we think of recovery as being a completely restful activity, when the best thing we can often do to recover is get moving. Active recovery can be any form of light activity such as walking, joint mobility exercise, or very light strength training such as bodyweight exercise or swinging light clubbells.
11) Take a hot/cold shower - This is not going to make a big impact on DOMS prevention and treatment, but it will help a little bit. Contrast showers can help to increase bloodflow and aid in getting nutrients in your bloodstream out to your muscles. Alternate showering with warm water and cold water for 20-30 second intervals.
12) Take an Epsom salt bath or soak in a hot tub - Sometimes all we need to prevent muscle soreness is a little relaxation. Spending 30 minutes in a hot tub or Epsom salt bath will decrease muscle inflammation, flush toxins out of your muscles, improve nerve function, and will otherwise relieve stress.
13) Ice your muscles – This is mostly for severe cases of DOMS. Icing your muscles will not necessarily aid in the healing process, but it will reduce swelling and pain. It’s a temporary relief from pain that can serve as a good alternative to taking anti-inflammatory drugs.
14) Get a massage or massage the sore areas yourself – This is also for extreme cases of DOMS. A massage will have many benefits in terms of muscle relaxation, pain reduction, and stress relief. Just make sure that your masseuse knows you’re already in pain!
15) Avoid activities that cause pain – This one’s simple. Don’t do anything that would cause significant pain to your healing body. If you’re experiencing DOMS, then it’s not wise to exercise vigorously until you have fully recovered. DOMS is a result of doing too much work too soon – creating too much stress for your body to handle at once. It will only compound the problem by training through it.
The Bottom Line
These techniques will help you prevent and self-treat Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness. If all else fails, simply wait 3-7 days and DOMS will almost always subside on its own. After a few weeks of consistent training, your body should be mostly adapted to your new workout schedule and DOMS should be minimal or non-existent in the future.
Please do note that anti-inflammatory drugs did NOT make the list. Drugs like Ibuprofen and Aspirin are great for blocking the body’s natural pain signals, but they do nothing to promote actual recovery. If you’re exercising to the point where you experience DOMS regularly, then it would be better to adjust your training and recovery methods instead of taking a drug and ignoring the problem. The reason we experience DOMS is because the body has survival mechanisms built-in to our physiology that alert us to problems. DOMS is an alert that we worked too hard, too soon. Ignoring that message will do more harm than good. Not only will you be over-training yourself on a regular basis into diminishing returns, plateau, and injury, but you’ll also be ingesting powerful drugs that have subtle and sometimes severe side-effects, especially long-term. That’s why this list is made of up mostly natural remedies that almost anyone can use to prevent and treat muscle soreness.
The ultimate goal of any training program is to find the optimal balance between work and recovery. We want to be able to do the most amount of work that we can safely and fully recover from. If you can crack the code to your optimal personal progress, then you’ve learned a lot about yourself and will have a lifelong skill that will benefit you indefinitely.
A lot of these tips are common sense – things we already know like drink plenty of water, eat well, get plenty of sleep, etc. And that’s great because we should absolutely be prioritizing these things over the less important stuff. The truth is that if you don’t get these basics in order, you can forget about the rest of the tips making much of a difference. In the same breath, several of these tips, while they may be helpful, probably won’t make a huge difference in terms of the actual muscle soreness you experience, like taking a hot/cold contrast shower, for instance. Yeah, this is going to help a little bit, but when it comes down to it, you probably won’t notice much improvement.
That said, there is one underlying theme on this list that will noticeably decrease the amount of muscle soreness you experience, and that is restorative movement/exercise. This can take many forms and be done in many ways (e.g. warmups, cooldowns, active recovery, etc.), but the fact of the matter is that proper movement helps to restore the body to its natural state – including the prevention and elimination of muscle soreness.
It sounds counter-intuitive because you’d think that you have to rest to heal as quickly as possible, but the truth is that oftentimes, the best thing you can do is move. So, if you take one thing away from this article, let it be that apart from the basics, restorative movement is likely the single most effective tool you can use to dramatically decrease the amount of muscle soreness you experience.
In fact, in my experience, it’s been the “missing link” in most people’s approach to managing their muscle soreness and the overall stress accumulated from training. It’s usually the one thing they’re NOT doing that will make a really big difference in their results. And if that’s you, and you’d like a superb collection of tools to help you integrate restorative movement into your warmups, cooldowns, (etc.) then here’s a great introduction to that style of training:
Note: there’s a free program here to help you get started. Go through this little mobility sequence just once and you’ll be amazed at how good you feel at the end. And you’ll probably learn a lot about yourself in the process – like what you need to work on in the future. Trust me. It’s well-worth taking the time to try it out. You can thank me later.
To your health and success,
CST, CST-KS, NSCA-CPT