Newswise — For many of us, waking up the morning after a tough workout with shaky thighs and arms so achy it's hard to pull on a t-shirt can feel like a sign of achievement. “I really killed it on those reps,” you think. But when it comes to workout effectiveness, pain does not necessarily equal gain, says Heather Henry, PT, DPT, SCS, OCS, FAAOMPT, a physical therapist at University Hospitals Avon Health Center and at T3 Performance, an athletic training center in Avon, Ohio.
Muscle soreness – or delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) – is a result of microscopic tears to muscle fibers. Part of the stiffness and achiness you feel 48 to 72 hours post-workout is from the body trying to repair those tears.
“Muscle soreness is a process of growth for the body,” Henry says.
But it’s not necessary to have muscle soreness to get stronger.
“There’s no evidence that shows individuals with muscle soreness get stronger versus those that don’t,” Henry says.
Though DOMS is often viewed as a badge of honor, it shouldn’t be how you gauge an activity’s effectiveness, Henry says. It’s better to use physical measurements – like heart rate, speed and endurance over time – rather than muscle soreness as an indicator of success.
Here are four other myths about muscle soreness that Henry sets straight:
Myth Number 1: The harder your workout, the more you will ache the next morning.
When it comes to DOMS, not all workouts are created the same. Eccentric movements – where the muscle lengthens as it contracts (think downhill sprints) – causes the most muscle breakdown of any workout, Henry says.
“People tend to feel more soreness after doing those types of activities,” she says.
Muscle soreness is also affected by your physical condition. People who are just easing into a workout – or those who have just started a routine that uses different weights or targets different muscles – will also often experience the most post work-out burn. Other factors that contribute to delayed onset muscle soreness include:
How hard you lift
How long you rest
Your level of activity when not working out
Myth Number 2: Stretching before exercising will prevent DOMS.
While flexing and unflexing your toes and lifting your knees to your chest might get you mentally prepped for a workout, in terms of reducing muscle soreness, you're better off investing in ice packs.
“Unfortunately, multiple studies have shown stretching before a workout does nothing to prevent delayed onset muscle soreness,” Henry says.
Myth Number 3: It’s not safe to work out if your muscles are sore.
“The first thing I tell people is to listen to their bodies,” she says.
Generally, a little bit of muscle soreness in your arms shouldn’t prevent you from working out your legs, for instance. And sometimes the achiness dims after a bit of conditioning.
“Some people will get muscle soreness if they are new to an activity,” Henry says.
But you shouldn’t use that as an excuse to lay on the couch. Instead, Henry says, you should start with 10 or 15 minutes of light aerobic exercise.
“If you don’t feel any muscle soreness after that, you’re probably okay to continue,” she says.
Myth Number 4: You should push through all muscle pain.
Pain is your body’s way of communicating with you. Ignoring it can cause you further harm.
“If you push your muscles past their capabilities, they might not be able to handle the load,” Henry says.
Refusing to back off can put you at risk for other injuries to your tendons and ligaments. And the recovery time for sprains and breaks is a lot longer than the 48 to 72 hours it generally takes for muscles to repair themselves after DOMS. If, after 10 or 15 minutes of light exercise, your muscles are still throbbing, stop your workout.
“Sometimes rest is really best,” Henry says.
But pain is not always inevitable. To help reduce inflammation, Henry recommends applying ice 24 to 48 hours after working out. Massage and compression can also help move swelling out of the muscle area.