Muscle soreness after a workout can limit strength and range of motion, and the discomfort will probably hamper your next two to three workouts.

Have you ever had intense muscle soreness a day or two after a workout that makes it difficult to walk up stairs or lift your arms? That phenomenon is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). Some believe it’s the best sign of a good workout and necessary to make progress, but that isn’t true. In fact, it’s more likely to be a hindrance. You can get stronger, leaner and healthier without having to walk around like a zombie for two days after every workout.

Post-workout pain can hamper your next two to three workouts.

DOMS usually shows up 12 to 48 hours after exercise — depending on how severe the workout was. There are several proposed explanations for it, but the most common one is it is the result of microscopic damage to muscle cells associated with heavy or repetitive eccentric muscle action.

Eccentric action is when muscles work while lengthening. A good example is what the biceps muscle does while lowering the weight in an arm curl exercise. It can also come from an unfamiliar activity, like changing from squats to lunges for the first time.

The way the muscles work in the lunge is different enough to trigger DOMS.

Safely ramp up your workout.

  1. When increasing weight on a given exercise, add about 5 percent. Sometimes weight-lifting equipment doesn’t allow that small of an increase, so make the smallest increase possible.
  2. After increasing weight, decrease repetitions to gradually adapt to the new challenge, particularly when forced to make more than a 5-percent weight increase. If you typically do 10 repetitions per set of an exercise, try dropping down to 6 repetitions and progressively work back up to 10 reps with the new weight over the course of multiple workouts.
  3. When moving to a more challenging exercise, decrease repetitions to allow for gradual adaptation, just like when moving up in weights.
  4. When you do get the occasional case of DOMS, research suggests that massage or foam rolling will alleviate it somewhat. Light exercise will also help, but keep the intensity very low. Body-weight movements or even simply walking should help, but you will really just need time to recover and regenerate.

Muscle Soreness is Not a Positive

Muscle soreness is often viewed as positive feedback from exercise, but that’s misguided. DOMS can limit strength and range of motion, and the discomfort will probably hamper your next two to three workouts.

It usually takes five to seven days to fade completely, and it is not a necessary part of getting stronger. The best case scenario is to avoid DOMS while building strength and fitness.

Now, that doesn’t mean never challenging yourself. Improving strength requires progressively lifting more weight and performing more demanding exercises over time. Post-workout soreness is occasionally unavoidable, but it shouldn’t be a normal occurrence.

Ultimately, exercise shouldn’t leave you in pain. Train smart and strategically and avoid unnecessary misery.

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Mike Bento is an advanced trainer at The Clubs at Charles River Park and Massachusetts General Hospital. He holds a master’s degree in human movement and is certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine as a corrective exercise specialist and performance enhancement specialist.