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Should You Skip Your Workout When Your Muscles Are Sore?

The experts explain a simple rule to keep in mind before you do.

By Kells McPhillipsJanuary 25, 2024


There’s nothing like the feeling of accomplishment that hits after you finish a tough workout. But, it can all fall to the wayside when you’re also hit with intense muscle soreness, aka DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).

If you’ve ever dealt with tired, aching muscles days after your workout and wondered if you should skip your workout or keep going, you’ve probably wondered: Should I work out with sore muscles? And if so, will it actually help or make the soreness worse? 

It turns out that that the answer depends, so below, the experts break down what you need to know about if you should workout with sore muscles. 

What Causes Muscle Soreness After a Workout?

Many people feel sore for about two to three days after exercising. “It's commonly thought that micro-tears or mild inflammation in the muscles, tendons, and connective tissue is what generates the soreness,” says Jared Vagy, PT, DPT. “There's also some research and some proposed hypotheses that the nerve endings within the muscles become sensitized, creating the feeling of soreness.” Either way, soreness is a completely normal and expected response to intense physical activity that you’ve never done before or haven’t done in a while.

When we exercise until we’re sore, we give our muscles the opportunity to build back stronger. However, not every workout should leave you feeling like you need to spend some quality time on the couch. For example, If you’re a strong indoor cyclist, you may not feel exhausted after class—but that doesn’t mean you didn’t have a great workout. This simply means that “your muscles have reached a training capacity to handle that volume of activity or amount of external load,” Phillip Vardiman, an associate professor in the Department of Food, Nutrition, Dietetics, and Health at Kansas State University, previously told The Output.

What Is Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)? 

Delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, is muscle soreness that begins about 12 hours after you work out but really hits its peak days later. A good rule of thumb: If you’re feeling out of sorts for long enough to ask yourself, “How am I still sore?” you likely have DOMS. 

Research shows that DOMS is most often caused by walking downhill, strength training, jogging, step aerobics, and jumping, and is most likely to occur after you’ve made a big change in your workout routine or tried something new. Luckily, you should treat DOMS the way you would any other case of muscle soreness. It just has a special name. 

Is It Bad to Work Out When You’re Sore?

So you squatted for the first time in a while yesterday, and you’re really feeling it today. Is it still okay to queue up a HIIT class? Vagy says there’s a simple rule you can use to discern whether you should get out there or take a seat on the bench (if only for today).

According to Vagy, you can exercise with sore muscles as long as you no longer feel achy and worn out after your warm-up. “This is a telltale sign that the muscles are now ready to exercise because your body has done a better job adapting to stress,” says Vagy. “If the soreness persists after the warm-up, that is a sign that you may need to dial things back and maybe not work out that day or work a different muscle group or area.”

It’s really important to listen when your body throws up this white flag. Working out when you really should be treating yourself to some T.L.C. could make you even more sore. And when one group of muscles is down for the count, others may try to pick up the slack. This compensation can lead to muscle imbalances and even increase your chances of injury.

Are You Sore, or Are You Injured?

Post-exercise soreness is normal; pain is not, according to Vagy. “Pain is a mechanism set up in our body to alert us that the breakdown of the tissues is too much,” says Vagy. “That's when soreness turns into pain.” Receptors in our cells called C fibers and Delta fibers send a message to the brain that all is not well, and we need to stop what we’re doing—and fast.

Physical signs of injury include (but aren’t limited to) swelling, bruising, acute pain, or the inability to move naturally. 

“When soreness turns to pain, that’s our body giving us a warning sign,” says Vagy. “If that pain lingers for two weeks or more—which is typically an acute response to injury—then I oftentimes recommend people seek a medical provider.” The earlier you talk to your doctor or physical therapist, he says, the quicker you can begin healing your body.

Exercising When Your Body Is Sore

Ready for the plot twist? Unless your major muscle groups are out of commission, you can squeeze a workout in. You just need to be smart about what kind of movement you choose.

Active Recovery Workouts

The term “active recovery” may seem like an oxymoron, but we promise it’s legit. “I try not to be completely sedentary on my recovery days,” says Peloton instructor Tunde Oyeneyin. “I focus on keeping the joints lubricated with non-strenuous movement. This can help increase the circulation of blood flow, which can reduce inflammation and help minimize soreness.” This includes walking, mobility work, stretching, low-impact bike rides, and yoga.

Vagy adds that moving your sore muscles helps remove waste products from the soft tissues and stimulates the recovery process. 

“For example, if your leg muscles are sore from cycling, then maybe you go swimming the next day because the muscles will be used in a different manner,” says Vagy. 

 “I log into the Peloton app for a 20 minute yoga flow or even a mobility class on my recovery days,” says Tunde.

Working Out Alternate Muscle Groups

Let’s say your upper body is hurting from yesterday’s strength training session, but your legs feel amazing. According to Vagy, you can take this as a sign that it’s time for some deadlifts, squats, and lunges (provided you can perform these moves safely with sore arms).

You can even program your workout week to account for fatigue and soreness. For example, maybe you work your upper body on Tuesdays and Thursdays and tend to your lower body on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Or, if you incorporate some form of cardio into your routine, you can choose opposing cardio on the other days. A run on Monday, a swim on Tuesday, for example.

The 4 Best Ways to Relieve Sore Muscles

Whether you’re opting for a workout or not, you can still take an active role in the recovery process.

Active Recovery

We already covered this, but remember, active recovery is a form of recovery so long as you take it easy. A little walk in your neighborhood or a quick vinyasa flow may help you get to your next starting line faster.

Peloton instructor Rebecca Kennedy demonstrates foam rolling exercise for the back

Foam Roll or Massage Your Aching Muscles

“I find massages not only relaxing but necessary. I drop in for a 20 minute foot massage as often as I can. It helps keep my entire body in alignment,” adds Tunde.

Vagy says that applying light to moderate pressure on the parts of the body that are sore may kickstart the recovery process. “Mild and moderate intensity will actively stimulate that area without overly breaking it down,” he explains. A little time with your foam roller or a massage will do the trick.

Stretch or Dynamic Stretch

“In addition, light stretching, and often dynamic stretching—moving through your available range of motion—allows the muscles and tendons to contract and elongate. This action can help pump out inflammation and facilitate active recovery,” says Vagy. Although studies are mixed on whether or not stretching helps speed up muscle recovery, if stretching helps you feel better after a workout, then there’s no reason it can’t be a part of your post-workout routine. Stretching has other benefits, too, including reducing your risk of injury and improving performance. 

You can find stretching and mobility classes in the Peloton app to help kick off your stretching routine. “Stretching before and after a workout is non-negotiable,” says Tunde. “In my early 20s, I was able to get away with skipping out on proper stretching. But now, in my late 30s, it makes a world of difference. Not only does stretching help reduce the risk of injury, but also it helps with managing soreness.” 

Rest When You’re Tired 

The truth is, sometimes the best thing you can do for your body (and your future workouts) is…chill. “In my opinion rest is just as important, if not more important than the workout. Proper rest gives my body the time it needs to properly detox and recover, making me stronger for the workout ahead,” says Tunde. 

Sink into a bathtub, spend some time with friends, and treat yourself to a cozy afternoon nap. Your Peloton Bike will be there tomorrow.


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