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Pain prevention: How to relieve sore muscles after strength training

How to relieve sore muscles after strength training
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To kick off our new series on pain prevention , we explore the most effective ways to reduce soreness after intense strength training.

Pain prevention

Why do muscles get sore?

There's a good reason why "No pain, no gain" is the classic motivational phrase for intense exercise. If you've ever raised a kettlebell with intent or gone one-on-one with a battle rope, you know that you'll feel at least some discomfort afterwards. Here's what's happening behind the scenes:

  • During intense exercise, you cause microtears to appear in muscles and the connective tissues around them.
  • This is actually a good thing and necessary for muscle growth; muscle is built back stronger during this process.
  • Post-workout soreness is a consequence of the damage and the subsequent inflammatory healing process.

Post-workout pain can sometimes indicate a more serious issue, so always listen to your body. Pulled muscles, pinched nerves, and other injuries require rest and recuperation. You may even want to reassess your form, try a new workout, or simply lighten the loads you're working with.

For all other aches, there are various ways to reduce muscle soreness and provide a little relief to your limbs after an intense strength session.

Pre-workout routines to reduce soreness

If you wait for the ache, it's already too late! Instead, incorporate the following tips into your pre-workout rituals and head off the pain train before it even arrives.

1. Foam rolling

Some runners use foam rollers to smooth out fascia—the internal connective surrounding muscles, bones, and organs—and relieve the "stuck" feeling caused by tight fascia in the leg muscles. But foam rolling, or self-myofascial release (SMR), isn't only beneficial for running and other endurance sports. It can activate your body for almost any kind of exercise by increasing your circulation, improving your tissue elasticity, and enhancing your range of motion. 

Upper body: Shoulders

Place a large foam roller on the ground then lie down on your side with the roller under your armpit. Take your top leg and bend it back slightly, then slowly roll up and down the length of your lats. Roll for a couple of minutes then switch sides. This is good prep for shoulder exercises such as the overhead press, dumbbell lateral raise, and bottoms-up kettlebell press.

Upper body: Shoulders

Upper body: Arms

Prepare for bicep curls, pushups, and other arm strength exercises by placing the foam roller on a table or raised surface. Place your forearm on the roller, using your other hand to apply more downwards pressure. Roll up and down firmly for 1-2 minutes on each arm, then repeat as needed on your biceps and triceps.

Upper body: Arms

Upper body: Back

The lower back doesn't have the same support as the upper back (or thoracic spine), so foam rolling is only recommended for the latter to help to ease stiffness and prepare for exercises like lat pulldowns, dumbbell rows, and pullups. Place a large foam roller on the ground then lie down with your upper back resting on it. Place your hands behind your head, lift your hips, and roll down to just below the shoulder blades. Repeat for 1-2 minutes.

Upper body: Back

Lower body: Glutes

Tight glutes not only make squats and glute kickbacks more challenging but can cause considerable hip and back pain. Sit on a large foam roller, placing your hands behind you on the floor and crossing one leg over the other. Rather than simply sitting on the roller, shift your bodyweight to one side then start rolling upward towards your waist for 1-2 minutes before switching sides.

Lower body: Glutes

Lower body: Hamstrings and calves

Ready for deadlifts, leg curls, and other lower-body classics? Start with a little foam rolling to reduce the prospect of pain afterwards. Simply place a foam roller on the ground then place your hamstrings on it, keeping your butt raised off the floor so your weight is on the roller. Slowly roll up and down for 1-2 minutes, changing angles to target any tight spots. Afterwards, adjust your body position to roll your calves, one leg at a time.

Lower body: Hamstrings and calves

2. Dynamic stretching

While static stretches should remain part of your cooldown, they may actually decrease your potential for strength gains. So, leave static stretches out of your pre-workout warmup and switch to dynamic stretching instead, which will raise your core temperature and your heart rate. This circulation boost delivers oxygen and nutrients throughout your body, giving you a timely energy bump. Just as importantly, it may also lead to a faster post-workout recovery and reduce the severity of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS)

Upper body: Shoulders

Keep it simple with a few quick sets of rolling shoulder circles, straight-arm circles, and alternating chest hugs.

Upper body: Shoulders

Upper body: Arms

Activate your forearms with a wrist flexion and extension drill. Hold your left arm straight out with your palm facing up, then use your other hand to pull back on your fingers and feel a gentle stretch. Then raise your palm toward your forearm, gently pulling the fingers back toward you. Switch sides and repeat.

Upper body: Arms

Upper body: Back

The cat-cow yoga pose is a great way to loosen up before any back-strengthening workout, as are lumbar rotations, seated forward folds, and simply touching your toes.

Upper body: Back

Lower body: Glutes

Warm up your glutes and hips with leg swings, lateral walks (with optional resistance band), high knees, and knee hugs.

Lower body: Glutes

Lower body: Hamstrings and calves

The runners among you should already be familiar with a few dynamic stretches that focus on the hamstrings and calves. They include butt kicks, foot grabs, lunge walks, and the dreaded mountain climbers.

Lower body: Hamstrings and calves

3. Cardio

It may seem counterintuitive, but your anaerobic workout should incorporate at least a little aerobic exercise. In the same way that dynamic stretching can activate your muscles for a weights session, walking, cycling, and running are also great warm-ups that get your heart pumping and your joints moving. 

Start with some light cardio, like a fast walk or gentle jog on the treadmill, or incorporate other cardio equipment like a stationary bike or elliptical machine. Remember that you're trying to activate, not annihilate: Gradually increase the intensity until you break out in a light sweat and feel a moderate increase in your heart rate.

Post-workout routines to reduce soreness  

You've finished your final rep but your workout isn't over. In fact, what you do after your workout is just as important as what you do during it. Consider these tips to help your body repair muscle and tissue repair, build strength, and recover in a way that minimizes soreness.

1. Foam rolling (again!)

Foam rolling is more commonly used after intense exercise because it has the potential to switch on your parasympathetic nervous system, making you feel relaxed. That might be the last thing you want before blasting through a strength session! Foam rolling post-workout, on the other hand, can be a great way to enhance recovery. One small study found that foam rolling after exercise may help reduce DOMS, with participants reporting fewer aches and pains when foam rolling for 20 minutes immediately after exercise then repeating 24 and 48 hours later.

Focus on all of the major muscles you just worked, with a particular emphasis on areas that feel tight or sore. By stimulating blood flow to these parts, foam rolling can increase the oxygen supply to damaged muscle fibers and shorten recovery time. Many elite athletes get regular sports massages for the very same reason.

2. Static stretching

Although static stretching is being replaced by dynamic stretching as an all-purpose pre-workout prep, it still belongs in your post-workout routine. Static stretches after a workout can help constricted muscles return to a more relaxed state, which in turn can improve post-workout flexibility and reduce soreness.

Unlike dynamic stretches, static stretches do not involve any movement and should be held anywhere from 10-60 seconds depending on your ability. Rather than stretching every muscle, focus on the areas most impacted by your workout, such as your hip flexors, glutes, and thoracic spine. Stretches should feel a little uncomfortable, but not painful.

Focus on the areas most impacted by your workout

3. Self-care

Foam rolling, stretching, and even some light cardio will help get your heart rate back to normal and set you up for a faster, less painful recovery after strength training. But that's not where your post-workout routine should end. After you've put your weights away and showered, practice self-care by making sure you:

  • Hydrate: Muscles recover faster when you are properly hydrated. Drink plenty of water to help alleviate your aches and shorten your recovery time. At the same time, avoid things like alcohol and caffeinated soda, which will only dehydrate you more.
  • Grab a protein shake: Drink a shake 15-30 minutes after your workout, when your muscles need to absorb nutrients to rebuild and get stronger. A glass of chocolate milk will achieve the same result, though it's higher in sugars.
  • Pamper yourself: Treat yourself to a post-workout Epsom salt bath. These salts break down into magnesium and sulfate in warm water, and are thought to soak into your body through your skin. There's no scientific evidence to back this up, but simply soaking in warm water will help relax muscles, loosen stiff joints, and reduce soreness.
  • Keep moving: If you're still feeling sore after all that, the best medicine may be to stay active! Go for a short walk or engage in some light stretching to take the edge off.

Take a proactive approach to pain prevention

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, especially when it comes to strength training. Focusing on preparedness and prevention is a lot easier than dealing with strains, sprains, and other injuries, so pay close attention to what your body is telling you before it worsens. 

With the tips above, you can alleviate the aches that typically follow intense strength training, and you may even notice an overall improvement in performance. Remember, too, to incorporate plenty of rest and recovery into your broader schedule. Rest periods or rest days should figure into every fitness regimen.

Want to make more gains with less pain? Check out more articles in our pain prevention series , as well as plenty more workout tips and advice on our blog.

Our writer's advice is intended for informational or general educational purposes only. We always encourage you to speak with your physician or healthcare provider before making any adjustments to your running, nutrition, or fitness routines.