All About Soreness - What's Making You Sore

July 6, 2021 by Megan Dahlman

What's Really Making You Sore and What To Do For Relief

Megan Dahlman Strong Mommas Podcast

Failing the toilet test...

There is a standing joke with some of my clients...the first few days after beginning their training program I ask them if they've tried the "toilet test". This sounds crass, but you immediately appreciate the full extent of muscular work required to sit on a toilet when your legs feel shot. The "stairs test" is a good one, too.


In fact, about a month ago, I got a hankering for challenging myself with pistol squats. I wanted to see if I could do full depth pistol squats while holding a 20 pound dumbbell. So I designed that into a routine, along with single leg deadlifts, and really pushed myself. 


After one of those workouts, my quads were so sore and my hammies were feeling it quite a bit, too! I found myself groaning to sit down and while walking up and down stairs. 


​We have a good little laugh, but there's something going on here. What’s the deal with soreness?


Muscle soreness seems to go hand in hand with exercise and physical activity. Most people expect to feel some sort of pain following a good workout session, and others avoid exercise altogether because of the soreness that will most likely ensue. However, few regular exercisers know what soreness really is, what it's caused by, and how to avoid it. Prepare to be enlightened.



Why do you feel sore? 3 main reasons...


  • Micro-tears - your individual muscle fibers actually get damaged because of the load placed on them
  • Inflammation - your body creates an inflammatory response because of the damage, so you’ve got some swelling that’s pressing on your pain receptors
  • Nutrient depletion - this is not as directly related to soreness, but a tough workout will also severely deplete your muscles of nutrients, making them feel empty and weak 



  1. DOMS - Most of the muscle soreness you feel following a workout is most likely what’s called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). You may have heard of this term. And this is a combination of those micro-tears and that inflammation. 
    1. You’ll experience DOMS as pain and inflammation in the muscles, decreased range of motion, and decreased strength of the affected muscles. Basically when your muscles feel like lead. 
    2. It can be felt within 8-12 hours following exercise and may last 24-72 hours. In fact, complete recovery may sometimes take up to 3 weeks.
    3. You’re most likely to get DOMS with eccentric muscle contractions (the breaking or decelerating type of contraction--picture downhill running or walking downstairs or lowering a weight) or exercises that are new to you


And this brings us to our first myth…

Myth #1: You’re sore because of lactic acid.

This is actually false, for the most part. Muscle and blood lactate (or lactic acid) actually returns to normal levels 30-60 minutes after exercise. (If light activity is performed, lactic acid is removed much quicker than this.) If you feel a burning sensation WHILE performing an exercise, then it could be from lactic acid. But, if you’re sore 8-12, 24 hours following the workout, then lactic acid is not to's already gone. 


And this brings us to our second most common myth about soreness…

Myth #2: If you're not sore after a workout, then the workout didn’t do anything or it's not working anymore.

This is simply not true, either, because there are definite ways to strategically reduce muscle soreness, and we’ll talk about those in a moment. I know this can be really mentally challenging for a lot of people, because we use soreness almost as confirmation that we did enough or that it was a good workout. “No pain, no gain.” RIght?


But one of the biggest reasons you’ll get sore is from that first initial exposure to an exercise. Or maybe you did that exercise in a deeper range of motion than you normally do, and that’s what made you sore. But over the next few weeks, you build on that and keep challenging that same exercise… and something that made you sore on week one (even though it might have felt much easier at the time), isn’t making you sore anymore by week 4 (even though the weight level or sets/reps is so much harder). So, if you’re following a really well-designed progressive workout plan, you just might not get sore as much. But that does not mean the workout is ineffective. 


Everybody is different. Because soreness is a result of many variables, chemical and mechanical, it will be experienced differently from person to person. Chronic soreness can be a predictor of overtraining, but most people should not judge the effectiveness of their training program by whether they are sore or not.


  1. What can you do to prevent soreness from happening, and then how can you relieve it when you do get sore? 



  • Prevention: Let’s talk about prevention first


      1. Performing a thorough dynamic warm-up has been shown to significantly reduce soreness - getting your muscles firing and your tissues warmer before jumping straight into the tough stuff makes a big difference 
      2. Gradually allowing your muscles to adapt and build up really helps, too... rather than jumping straight into something really hard. 
        1. I have friends that will show up at a workout class and just jump straight in… like orange theory or something like that… and they will have never done that particular workout before, and they push themselves (highly motivating environment). 
        2. Don’t MAX out with every workout session. 
      3. Performing recovery work following a workout session
        1. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve trained over the years that finish their workout and walk away. They skip the cool down, and then wonder why they’re really sore later. 
        2. Try to do a few things following your workout to help reduce your risk of getting sore
          1. Dynamic warm-down (opposite of a warm-up) 
          2. Foam rolling - myofascial release, pressure like a massage
          3. Static stretching
          4. Continued active recovery - go for a walk, stretch later on in the day


  • Have good nutrition and hydrate well, especially on workout days. 


        1. When your body is fueled with good stuff, it’s going to have all the raw materials it needs to heal faster


  • SLEEP!! 


        1. The majority of tissue healing happens while you sleep. HGH is extremely important for your muscles to repair, and this hormone is produced the highest during sleep. 


  • Finally, one of the best ways to reduce the amount of time you spend being sore is to get in better shape. 


      1. If you’re consistently working out and keeping your body healthy and well-conditioned, the likelihood that you’ll be crazy sore goes way down. 


So that’s all about preventing muscle soreness, but what should you do when you do get sore? 


  1. How can you relieve it when you do get sore?
    1. [Extreme soreness - post-marathon] If the pain is pretty extreme, take an anti-inflammatory like Ibuprofen and ice the area. With such extreme pain, you're probably experiencing a lot of inflammation that should be managed. You should also take a few days off from your workouts or normal activities to let your muscles heal. 
    2. Active recovery - light activity, especially anything that moves your body through full, gentle ranges of motion without any load (like yoga) 
    3. Ice bath, e-stim, 
    4. Compression and massage
    5. Foam rolling and stretching (just a perceived benefit?) - even if it’s just perceived, it’s still a benefit
    6. Sleep


III. Is there anything you shouldn’t do when you feel sore? 

  1. Don’t succumb to the stiffness and move like a crotchety person for a few days
    1. Instead, you should gently force your joints into normal ranges of motion.
  2. Wait for the soreness to disappear to do another workout
    1. Getting your muscles moving again is the absolute best thing for recovery! 
    2. If your soreness is moderate and pretty normal, doing another workout is not going to hurt you, in fact it will probably help 
  3. Do a really intense workout where you’re maxing out with the exact same muscles that are feeling sore
    1. Keep in mind your tissues are healing. You don’t want to push them so hard that your body can’t keep up with the healing process and you actually risk overtraining.  
  4. Stay up late, no sleep
  5. Eat really bad

Here's an example:

Not long ago, I heard from one of the moms that I coach, Julie, and she was just commenting on how her soreness is now so different from what she’s experienced in the past with other workout programs. She gets a little bit sore here and there, especially at the beginning of a new routine, but it’s not debilitating anymore and she’s got really great tools to manage it better. Plus, it’s refreshing to not be chasing soreness, to not have the “no pain no gain” mantra. It just feels good to follow a progressive plan, to trust the process, and not rely on soreness to qualify her workouts.


The big idea here is that…the next time you do a workout and end up failing the toilet test, you now know why! And you’ll know what to do about it. 


Your action steps now are to: 

  • Stay consistent with your exercise...don’t take time off, or you’ll pay for it with extra soreness...and be sure to follow a progressive plan, not one that makes you max out from day one
  • Be thorough when you workout… build in the extra 10 minutes to do a full dynamic warm-up and thorough cool down to get the recovery work going. 
  • You can still workout if you’re sore, and in fact it will probably help. Just take it slow and be intentional. 
  • And remember that your level of soreness is not a good indicator for how effective a workout is. Just follow a good, progressive plan, and trust the process. 


Alright friends, thanks for joining us this week, and we’ll see you back here again next week. 


And as always, be strong.

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