It is generally safe to work out when sore. However, overtraining can lead to muscle damage or injury.

Generally, soreness due to exercising is not a cause for concern, and people can often continue doing physical activity. Some people may also experience delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which occurs in the days after exercise.

DOMS is typically the result of microdamage to muscles.

In this article, we look at what causes muscle soreness during and after exercise and ways to prevent DOMS.

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Many people feel sore 2–3 days after exercise. This is not uncommon and can happen to people of all fitness levels.

DOMS is a common cause of soreness after a workout. It feels different from acute soreness, which occurs during muscular activity. DOMS typically occurs 12–24 hours after an activity and may be most pronounced 24–72 hours after a workout.

DOMS occurs as a result of microscopic damage to muscle tissues. This damage develops during exercise. DOMS may involve additional symptoms, such as muscle stiffness and swelling.

However, new theories are challenging this narrative. A 2020 study suggests that post-workout soreness may result from compression to nerves in the muscles rather than tissue damage. More research is necessary to investigate this theory, and there is little evidence to support it at present.

The types of exercise most likely to result in DOMS are:

  • strength training exercises
  • jogging
  • walking downhill
  • step aerobics
  • jumping

The following factors may increase a person’s likelihood of developing DOMS:

  • starting a new exercise program
  • changing a workout routine
  • increasing the duration or intensity of regular workout sessions
  • performing any type of physical activity to which the body is unaccustomed

DOMS does not usually require any medical treatment. The soreness will go away by itself within a few days.

People should not let muscle soreness put them off exercise.

Warm up thoroughly

DOMS may lessen as muscles begin to warm up. Dynamic stretching may help a person prepare to work out. These stretches involve moving slowly through a full range of motion to stimulate muscles and joints.

A person can also warm up by moving through the anticipated range of motion at a lighter weight or intensity. This provides a low-stress way to prepare muscle groups and joints for the workout ahead.

Warming down after a workout may also help reduce DOMS symptoms and improve performance in future exercise.

Exercise different muscle groups

Sometimes, muscle soreness makes a particular activity difficult or painful. If this is the case, a person should avoid that activity for a few days until their symptoms ease. Meanwhile, they can try exercising a different part of the body.

As the body becomes more accustomed to specific workouts, a person’s DOMS may lessen. However, people may also be able to reduce the severity of DOMS with certain post-workout habits.


A 2020 review found that sports massages can have a small but statistically significant effect on DOMS symptoms and overall flexibility.

A review of various exercise recovery techniques also found massage to be the most effective method of reducing DOMS and perceived fatigue. Sports massages following exertion can improve blood flow to stressed tissues and prevent fluid buildup in the muscles.

Active recovery

Active recovery is a period of low-intensity exercise that can improve blood flow in the muscles and reduce DOMS. However, studies have shown that active recovery is most effective in a short window after exercise. Following this, its ability to aid recovery lessens.

Learn more about active recovery here.

Diet and supplements

A person’s overall diet may play an important role in muscular recovery.

A 2019 review found that long-term consumption of foods high in antioxidants and certain supplements may help reduce the effects of exercise-induced muscle damage.

The review highlighted the following foods:

Researchers noted that supplements that may be able to reduce DOMS symptoms include:

Acute caffeine supplementation may also help reduce DOMS.

Foam rollers

Using foam rollers between workouts may aid in muscle recovery and lessen symptoms of DOMS, according to a limited 2020 study.

Similar to massage, foam rolling can promote blood flow to specific muscle groups and help reduce inflammation.

Cold baths

A 10-minute partial-body immersion in 50°F (10°C) water may lessen DOMS, according to a 2019 study. Cold water baths and cryogenic treatments, which can use temperatures as low as -211°F (-135°C) are popular among elite athletes.

Muscle soreness and burning during high intensity exercise result from an accumulation of intracellular metabolites that impair muscle contractions.

Metabolites are substances the body makes when it breaks down other chemicals for energy. Intracellular means they occur within cells. Examples include inorganic phosphate and H+ ions.

During a workout, a person may feel:

  • general soreness
  • acute pain
  • a burning sensation in the muscles
  • muscle cramps

These feelings are often a response to natural body processes. However, they may indicate that a person is performing activities in an unsafe manner and is at risk of damaging their muscles.

DOMS is a side effect of the muscle healing process. As the body repairs the microscopic tears in the muscle, the tissue becomes stronger than it was before.

DOMS can limit a person’s range of motion, meaning they may perform movements incorrectly, causing damage in other muscle groups and joints.

Overtraining can cause additional muscular damage and may lead to injury. Overtraining is when a person continues to work out without adequate rest periods.

Allowing the body enough time to heal between exercises is critical to muscular development and overall health. Symptoms of overtraining include:

Injury vs. soreness

It is important for a person to know the difference between natural muscle soreness and muscular injury.

Soreness occurs due to microtears or an accumulation of metabolites in the muscles. A person may experience an ache, stiffness, or warmth in the affected area, but not acute pain.

However, repetitive or strenuous muscular contractions can also increase a person’s risk of severe injury.

More severe injuries will typically result from larger tears or strains in muscles, tendons, or ligaments.

Muscle injuries may result in:

If a person suspects they have sustained an injury, they should stop exercising immediately.

Soreness during exercise is perfectly normal. It is especially likely to affect people who are new to working out or stepping up their routine.

DOMS results from microtears in the muscles and may lessen as a person becomes more accustomed to new movement patterns. This soreness can last for several days.

In contrast, muscle soreness during a workout results from metabolite accumulation in muscle tissue. It may lessen once a person finishes an activity.

People may be able to reduce their risk of DOMS by eating a diet rich in antioxidants, taking supplements, and adding massages, cold water baths, and foam rolling to their post-workout routine. Gradually warming up before a workout and progressively loading muscles can also help.