Ouch! Should You Work Out When Sore?

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September 23, 2022

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We’ve all had those days after an intense workout when we’re laughing with friends about our sore muscles and how we’re struggling to sit down, put on a bra or take the stairs, but when is it ok to push through, and when is it a sign you should rest? If you’re deciding whether or not you should workout when sore, here’s what you need to know. 

What causes muscle soreness? 

When you challenge your muscles with strength training or a tough workout, you can cause tiny tears in the muscles from stressing the fibres beyond what they are used to. This is a completely normal physiological response which can cause post-workout aches (aka DOMS or delayed onset muscle soreness), and your muscles then repair and rebuild to become stronger when you rest.

If your muscles aren’t sore, does that mean you didn’t work hard?

Nope, that’s definitely not the case! With regular training, your muscles become stronger and more resilient, meaning those tears won’t happen as easily as they did in your first few weeks of training. 

This is why you often notice significant soreness if you’re new to exercise, returning after a break, or starting a new training style or Sweat program, but experience it much less regularly further down the track once you’ve developed a consistent routine, even if your workouts still feel challenging. 

The moral of the story - having sore muscles is NOT a box you need to tick to feel like you had an effective workout or a sign that you are making progress, and you shouldn’t feel like every workout needs to be super tough. It’s normal to have periods in your routine where you push yourself harder than usual, like the six-week Sweat Challenge, but in general, your fitness habits should feel sustainable for the long term!

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When it comes to soreness, when should you prioritise rest?

This all depends on what kind of pain you’re experiencing and how long it’s lasting. If the muscle soreness you’re experiencing after a workout is so severe that it’s affecting your range of motion and ability to perform exercises with good form, then you should definitely rest. The same goes for if you’re really struggling with daily movements.

When you’re feeling sore, it’s common to sacrifice your form or recruit incorrect muscle groups to compensate and avoid feeling the pain, and this can increase your risk of injury or mean you develop poor movement habits. Powering through and working out too often can also lead to overtraining and stress injuries, where you tear the muscle (or even bone) that is already damaged and hasn’t had enough time to repair. 

We know how much you want to hit your weekly goals, but thinking that more is always better or buying into the ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality often isn’t healthy and can create a habit of overriding your body’s natural signals. Your muscles recover and rebuild when you rest, not during your workout time, so don’t schedule another session under the illusion that you’ll see better or faster results on your fitness journey by working out as much as possible!

If you want to find a way to keep moving but don’t feel up to another workout, low-intensity steady state cardio is a great option that supports your recovery by promoting blood flow to your muscles. Other ways to have an active recovery session instead of a workout include:

  • Heading out for a walk, cycle or swim

  • Choosing a guided recovery session from your Sweat program

  • Rolling out your yoga mat for a gentle flow.

If you’re experiencing sharp pain, intense discomfort, are considering taking painkillers, or it’s a strain or sprain rather than DOMS, prioritise your rest. If the pain continues for more than three days, see your healthcare provider for advice. Not sure if it’s muscle soreness or a more serious injury? Apart from sharp pain, other telltale signs may include swelling, bruising, tingling or numbness.

Perhaps you struggle to take rest days because you feel unproductive? Resting is a key part of building your health and fitness. Why not try one of these 25 rest day goals!

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When is it OK to push through and do another workout? 

Sometimes, your muscles will feel achy for a few days after an intense workout (the second day is often the worst!). If you’re feeling ready to complete another workout but those muscle aches are still lingering, you could opt for a workout that focuses on different muscle groups, or reduce the intensity. 

If your arms are out of action, a lower-body workout could be a good option! Many Sweat programs are designed with your muscle recovery in mind and alternate focus muscle groups in workouts to help you maximise your training. If you feel sharp pain during your session or discomfort beyond the muscle burn, stop and prioritise your rest and recovery, or see a professional for advice.

Another way to gauge whether you should work out when sore or not is to start with a warm-up and see how you feel. If some light movement is enough to limber up and ease the aches, you’re probably good to continue! If a warm-up only makes you wince, an active recovery day or full rest day is your best bet.

If you’re new to working out or are trying a new training style - be patient and kind to yourself. Know that the aches won’t always be this intense once your body adjusts to your routine, and you’ll better understand what your body needs with every workout.

What can you do to increase muscle recovery and reduce soreness?

To reduce the severity of muscle soreness and how long it lasts, here are some tips: 

  • Do a 5-10 minute warm-up before each workout to increase blood flow and prepare your body for the movement to come 

  • Make time for a quick cool-down with some walking, cycling, stretching or foam-rolling after your workouts to let your body gradually come back to a resting state

  • Prioritise your rest days and get enough quality sleep

  • Eat enough protein to support your muscle growth and repair. Try to eat a good source of protein at every meal as your body can only absorb so much at a time.

  • In between workouts, keep your body moving to increase blood flow to your muscles. This doesn’t have to be a workout - low-intensity steady state cardio (like walking, cycling or swimming) is a great option for active recovery, as are yoga and Pilates. You might even want to incorporate some exercise snacks in your day!

  • If you’re starting a new program or coming back from a break, listen to your body and start gently. Gradually increasing the intensity and frequency (aka progressive overload) can help your body adjust and reduce intense soreness.

  • Continue to build the habit of exercising regularly, rather than giving up because of the initial discomfort. The more you work out and build your strength, the less soreness you’ll experience over time.

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Ready for your first workout?

Having sore muscles can be a satisfying feeling, but it can be hard to know whether to push ahead with your next workout or rest. Listen to your body, slow down when you need more recovery, and know the difference between workout aches and pain that could be an injury. Your health is most important!

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* Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. Sweat assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article.

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