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The Morning After: Understanding Post-Workout Pain

By Mike Clausen

Working out—whether for you that's strength and resistance training, or running/swimming/snowboarding—usually will cause soreness, even pain. Where does it come from? How much pain should you expect? And what should you do if you think your pain is excessive? Here's an introduction to the good and the bad of pain.

Within a day of working out, you can expect to get sore. This pain is known as DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness), and it is a sign that your workout actually, well, worked. Exercise breaks down muscle fibers, after all, and that breakdown takes a toll. Theory has traditionally held that DOMS results from the build-up in the muscles of the lactic acid produced during exercise, but that idea is being challenged in recent years. Whatever its cause, DOMS will be experienced as discomfort, even pain, whenever you use the muscle(s) in question. This condition will typically last anywhere from two to three days—and depending on how hard you worked out, it could last even longer.

While there is no need to worry about being sore for a couple days due to DOMS—in fact, some discomfort after working out is welcome—you should nonetheless avoid stressing those areas while you are experiencing DOMS, and wait until the soreness goes away before lifting that specific muscle group again. You'll often hear this described in workout programs as "recovery", and it is a crucial part of a fitness program. You need to let the muscle fibers recover before you put them under strain again. In part, you do this to prevent injury (as opposed to just soreness) from overtaxing already exhausted muscles, and in part you do it to allow the muscles to rebuild themselves bigger and stronger. That is, after all, why you are working out in the first place, so make sure to collect on your investment by giving your muscles some time to rebuild! To help alleviate some of the soreness, you can take ibuprofen for swelling. Stretching or using the foam roller on the affected areas can also help to decrease the amount of tenderness/soreness you feel by restoring flexibility to the muscles (more on this below).

This is not to say that all post-workout pain is good, however. Pain beyond the ordinary discomfort of DOMS requires investigation, particularly if it goes on longer than a week. How can you know if your pain is out of the ordinary? First, listen to your body after every workout, not just when you think you have a problem. You should get to know how you ordinarily feel, and the parameters of your standard post-workout pain, as well as learn to understand where you may have weaknesses that typically get extra-sore. If you experience something out of the ordinary, and again, if it persists for a week or more, you need to take a deeper look.

The body has a few "hot spots", which are frequent locations for chronic pain. These hot spots include your shoulders, hips, and lower back. These spots are particularly prone to chronic tendon inflammation. For instance, you may experience "tennis elbow" through the outside of your elbow or when gripping objects, or pain in the upper shoulder where your bicep meets your pectoral. Similarly, I see many clients with pain in the low back area. These chronic injuries are not caused by DOMS, but by overtraining, improper posture, and/or lack of flexibility. What can you do about these underlying issues?

  1. Ask the Doctor: Don't be afraid to consult a physician. Many guys don't want to see a doctor because they feel they need to be part of a "tough" gym culture. But how "tough" will you feel when a surgery takes you fully out of commission? If you experience sharp, debilitating, or intense chronic pain, you need to see a physician. That's what real men do.
  2. Stretch and Roll: Take some time every single day for corrective stretching (hint: using the Diakadi corrective stretch series is a great way to do this!) to both give you flexibility and provide balance so that you don't distribute strain unevenly across your body. Over time, corrective stretching will improve your overall posture. Plan also to employ a foam roller to "iron out" adhesions in your muscles. Releasing these tight spots will eliminate a great deal of day-to-day pain.
  3. Take a Breather: Make sure you are not overtraining by both giving yourself appropriate recovery (do not retrain a muscle until it has stopped being sore from the last time!), and by putting greater variety in your workouts. Muscles benefit from multiple training methods, and the presentation of new stimulus. Don't spend all of your time glued to the flat bench. Try sports training, bootcamps, classes—whatever you can do to change things up, and avoid just pounding away at your muscles in the same old ways.
  4. See an Expert: Finally, for pain you need to treat on an ongoing basis, that is not resolved with corrective stretching but does not need a physician's intervention, I highly recommend seeing a sports-related physical therapist. Someone with this kind of specialist training can properly diagnose the issue and use ultrasound and active release to help heal the area. It may require multiple visits, but until the area is healed and functioning properly, you are only building upon an injury if you keep working out. Eventually, it may put you out of the gym for a very long time if not addressed. It's worth investing in your body's future, now.
With these tips in mind, you can have a long and healthy career in the gym, setting and meeting all of your goals while staying injury-free.

About Mike Clausen: Clausen is the founder and co-owner of DIAKADI Body training gym, voted best personal training gym in San Francisco by CitySearch in 2006. He has been actively involved in sports and weightlifting since high school, and continues to use that knowledge when training his clients. Clausen is both A.C.E. and N.A.S.M. certified and has been training clients professionally for six years. He enjoys making his clients stronger, both physically and mentally, giving them the tools to create an efficient body and to do things they thought were not possible.