How Sore Is Too Sore from Working Out?

It seems like a badge of honor to be so sore from a workout that you can’t walk in some circles. Some CrossFitters, marathoners, and hardcore fitness influencers will post about how they can’t lift their arms to shampoo their hair or can’t walk up the stairs in their house the day after a hard workout. They’re that sore. And for us mere mortals, we wonder if we’re not going hard enough when we only feel mild discomfort.

Is Being Sore After Workouts Good?

If you’re new to working out or have done a challenging workout, you’re going to feel some muscle soreness. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can set in anywhere from 12 to 48 hours after you’re done with your workout. You’ll feel your muscles ache, or they’ll feel tight, but after a few days, they’ll start to ease up.

Being sore in itself isn’t a bad thing. Some mild soreness (not pain) means that your training has made microscopic tears in your muscle fibers, and now those fibers are knitting themselves back together so you can get stronger. But it’s a red flag when you have crippling soreness that impacts your life. You can make progress without extreme soreness.

So – How Hard Should I Go?

This is where there’s some controversy. Some people think that you should go all out in every workout, push your limits, and be super-sore the next day.

That person is not me. Hard workouts have their place, and if I’m doing a CrossFit Open workout, competing, or running a race, I’m going to go all out. But in my everyday workouts, I do not want to be extremely sore every day. Mildly sore? That’s fine. Debilitatingly sore? No. I work out to be healthy and fit, not to spend days in bed with heating pads and Vitamin I (ibuprofen).

How to Avoid Being Too Sore

That doesn’t mean you should avoid hard workouts. Instead, take a look at what you’re doing in the gym. My preferred CrossFit programming is a couplet or triplet that hits a bunch of different muscles so that I’m not overworking, say, my legs. And then the next day, I’ll do something that hits different muscles in different ways. That way, if I’m sore from snatches on Monday, I can still get in a good workout with box step-ups and toes to bar on Tuesday.

If you prefer more traditional strength training workouts, hire a coach or trainer to program your workouts so that you’re not overtaxing any one muscle group. You might want to do three days a week of full-body strength training to supplement running or cycling or go all-in with the five-day-a-week splits. That’s entirely up to you. Traditional strength training typically leaves you sore, especially when you start a new cycle, but it shouldn’t leave you wrecked.

Aside from the actual movements you’re doing, pay attention to the weight you’re lifting. In CrossFit workouts, you can always scale the movements (knee raises instead of toes to bar, for example) or use a lighter weight. The same is true for traditional strength workouts. You want to use a weight that challenges you, but one where you still have two or three reps left in the tank at the end of a set.

Warm Up and Cool Down to Prevent Muscle Soreness

The other keys to avoiding post-workout muscle soreness are a proper warm-up and cool down. For CrossFit warm-ups, you need to start with movements that use the same muscles recruited for the WOD. For example, if your WOD has a lot of kettlebell swings, you’ll warm up with light kettlebell deadlifts, Russian kettlebell swings (to the height of your eyeballs), and then full American swings. I also like to do some dynamic stretches, like active Samson stretches, before a WOD.

When doing strength training workouts, warm up with dynamic stretches and sets at a lighter weight. For example, you might use an empty barbell to warm up your back squat, then gradually add weight until you reach your working weight.

For cool-downs, both for CrossFit and strength training, take some time to stretch and hold the position for 30-60 seconds. Some basic stretches for post-workout can be:

  • Single leg quad stretch
  • Forward fold
  • Pigeon pose
  • Calf stretch on a pole
  • Puppy dog (to stretch arms/lats)

Ultimately, minor post-workout soreness is normal and can be good. But if you’re so sore that you can’t perform daily activities, you’ve likely overdone it. Don’t fall into the trap of “I have to do this for bragging rights.” You can still get a great workout and make progress without extreme discomfort.