There’s something weirdly satisfying about being so sore in the days after a good sweat that you struggle to get in and out of chairs. It feels like a physical confirmation that you crushed your workout (go you!) and will soon reap all the benefits.
But your quivering quads probably leave you with a few questions — like, why do muscles get sore, exactly? And is that can’t-walk aching always a good thing?
Generally, muscle soreness is a totally okay (and even desirable) result of exercise, says strength coach and athletic trainer Austin Martinez, director of education for StretchLab.
So whether you’re just getting back into your routine after some time out of the gym (hello, lockdown!) or recently discovered a new online Pilates class obsession, consider your sore muscles a normal part of the process.
The next time you’re too achey to get up off the couch, here’s everything you need to know about what’s happening within to your muscles and what it means for your fitness routine.
Why your muscles get sore after you work out
Though you may not feel sore while exercising, the process that leads to the sensation starts while you’re still sweating.
“When a stress or load is placed on the muscle, it causes ‘micro-tears’ within it,” says Martinez. (Fitness pros sometimes refer to these as “micro-trauma,” too, just fyi.)
In response, the body triggers an inflammatory process so that it can adapt and transform into a stronger version of itself (and specifically the muscle you just stressed), Martinez explains.
Inflammatory markers (like white blood cells, red blood cells, and cytokines), plus lactic acid, all help your muscle tissue repair itself, so they build up in your just-worked muscles in the hours and days after strenuous exercise.
The result of this muscle damage and inflammatory repair process? You feel sore, says Martinez.
I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t inflammation bad, though? Not in this case! “Inflammation is an absolute necessity to ensure proper recovery and remodelling of the muscle tissue,” Martinez explains.
Fun fact: How sore you get depends on a few factors.
Now that you know what happens in your body that makes you feel sore after a workout, you’re probably wondering why you feel 100-percent fine after exercising sometimes and all-but unable to bend down to tie your shoes after others.
Ultimately, how sore you feel post-workout depends on just how much muscle micro-trauma your sweat session caused. And just how much micro-trauma a sweat causes depends on a few things.
1. How new you are to working out
If you’ve been exercising for years, you’re less likely to get super-sore than someone just starting a routine — or getting back on the bandwagon after some time off.
“People who have built a tolerance to exercise are generally less sore after workouts than those that just started,” Martinez says. Over time, your body adapts to the stimulus of exercise, so it undergoes less micro-trauma and requires less of that repair response.
2. How often you work out
The more often you train, the less opportunity muscles have to fully recover and repair itself between sessions, and the more likely you are to experience muscle soreness afterwards.
“Those that work out more often are more likely to experiences soreness because of the frequency of the stimulus,” says Martinez. This is especially true if you train a particular muscle group (like your legs, for example) multiple times per week.
3. The type of workout you do
Unsurprisingly, the intensity and familiarity of the workout you do also influence how sore you feel. If you suddenly double the number of squats you do and significantly up the weight you use, the increased stimulus will likely leave you with more achy muscles than your usual leg workout.
So, is having sore muscles a good sign, then?
Yep, you can go ahead and consider your sore muscles as a sign that your workout did the job.
“Workout-related soreness is generally a productive thing,” says Martinez. “Soreness indicates that your muscles were challenged and are adapting.” As long as you give your muscles the rest and nutrition they need to recover, soreness is just a step in the process of you becoming fitter and stronger.
Muscle soreness shouldn’t typically last too long, though.
Key info here, guys: Regardless of your newness to exercise or the intensity of the workout you do, soreness should generally pop up (and fade away) within a certain timeframe.
In most cases, the sore sensation you feel as a result of your muscles’ inflammatory process kicks in within about 24 to 48 hours after your workout, says Martinez. That’s why post-workout soreness is often referred to as “delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS).”
“Though the inflammatory process kicks in almost instantaneously, the physical effects and soreness don’t arise for a day or two,” he explains.
From there, muscle soreness typically sticks around for up to four days as your muscles complete the necessary repairs, says Martinez.
If your soreness persists for more than four days, check in with an expert (like a physical therapist or a certified athletic trainer). Excessive (or chronic) muscle soreness can indicate that you’re overtraining, or putting more stress on your body than it can adapt to, which can lead to muscle breakdown, Martinez says.
The bottom line: Exercise puts stress on muscle tissues, which then undergo a repair process that causes muscle soreness. This soreness generally indicates that the body is responding and adapting to a workout — both good signs you’re making gains! Just be sure to give your bod enough time to recover.
This article was originally published on www.womenshealthmag.com