Should I lift weights when my muscles are still sore?

Why I not stiff and sore right away after weight training, but sore the following two days? Should I work through the soreness?

Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.

Soreness is generally broken up into two categories, garden-variety soreness signaling the accumulated waste products of exertion (lactic acid in the muscles, etc.), and that more vexing sort believed to be due to swelling and inflammation deep in the muscle. This second version is referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (or DOMS), and it starts about eight hours after a workout and reaches its peak between 24 and 72 hours later, according to the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s 600-page tome, sexily-titled the Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning.

You don’t have to be an exercise scientist, however, to know about DOMS. We’ve all felt the nice sore you get after a good workout, but I had DOMS once, and it felt like the muscular ache you can get from the flu and lasted for almost two weeks. This is common, but a huge bummer. The reason I got it may perhaps be why you got it as well– while this condition can be triggered by the start of a new workout, it is exceedingly well-correlated with so-called eccentric contractions, or the type of work you do in letting down a weight slowly. These contractions work fewer fibers, including those located at the junction where muscles meet tendons–all possible reasons for the injury.

The extreme soreness I felt occurred after trying a trick employed by the US Ski Team known as eccentric leg-press overload workouts, where you basically push up the weight with two legs and let it down with one. (It’s difficult to isolate your eccentric movements, but incredibly useful. To learn more, read the Bodywork section of the forthcoming May issue of Outside.)

Your muscles are weaker when healing from DOMS, so working through the pain won’t earn you any strength gains, and may delay healing. The use of lighter weights, stretching, and massage have also been shown to be of little help. A study from Greece that was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research did show a reduction in pain by taking ibuprofen, but it didn’t help the subjects return to normal strength any sooner. The good news is that you will be less likely to get so sore the next time you try an eccentric workout.

promo logo