Earlier this week, I wandered into the gym a little later than my usual class. No biggie, I thought to myself as I changed into my workout gear. I’ll just join a different class tonight. It’ll be a fun change!
Little did I know that I was walking into a class called “Heavy Weights Only.”
Instead of my typical workout class, I was in for a full hour of solely heavy lifting through three exercises and three exercises only: squats, deadlifts, and hip thrusts. It was an entire 60 minutes of badass women lifting their hearts out, and while I loved every minute of it, I have to admit that after endless sets and a blur of more and more numbers on my bar, I was afraid of what kind of pain I would be waking up to.
I was not wrong to be afraid. The muscle soreness was real, and now, as I sit here on day two, the most notorious day of all for soreness, I’m practically crying in pain and dreading using the bathroom because that means squatting (or at least bending down to make it to the toilet seat). However, because I definitely foresee even more lifting in my future—and also because I will eventually need to deal with the porcelain throne—I’ve become a pro at tending to sore muscles.
Here are a few of my favorite strategies that you can turn to the next time you too try to be the Incredible Hulk at the gym.
Take a plunge.
After my first experience with muscle pain, I went to my local Walmart and picked up a giant bag of Epsom salts. I specifically choose one that also has peppermint oil in it, and I assure you that if you also choose a peppermint Epsom salt soak, you will not be disappointed.
Not only is it thought that Epsom salts help relieve muscle soreness by increasing magnesium in the body, but peppermint is also a natural muscle relaxer. If I’m still sore, I will even rub some diluted peppermint oil on my muscles after the bath, which feels like a good treatment with nature’s own Icy Hot.
Go with ginger.
Not to go all “crunchy” on you, but natural solutions can really help by reducing the inflammation in your body. Turmeric and ginger are two spices that contain compounds that are especially effective at decreasing inflammation. Rather than rubbing ginger all over your body (tempting, I know), try swapping out your morning coffee for a cup of ginger tea or switching to a turmeric latte as you swing into work.
A study by the American Pain Society found that consuming raw or heat-treated ginger in particular is effective for reducing muscle soreness caused by exercise. Eating turmeric in food or as a supplement has also been found to help reduce that pesky delayed-onset muscle soreness.
For an easy way to get your turmeric, Starbucks is now offering turmeric lattes. The company explains that the warm, golden drink is just as delicious as it is photo-ready for your feed. Just think of all the bragging rights you'll enjoy...
Know your enemy.
Although many of us have been taught that lactic acid is the culprit behind our sore muscles, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), lactic acid is actually not the reason our muscles get sore.
Instead, delayed-onset muscle soreness is thought to be caused by the repair processes happening within the muscle fibers. Who knew, right? Lactic acid is no longer the enemy, friends!
The good news is that, according to the ACSM, you’re due to have some relief from your soreness in about three to five days, and if you are just experiencing your typical, run-of-the-mill muscle soreness from exercising (and not an actual injury), a light activity such as yoga, pilates, walking, stretching, or swimming is perfectly fine and won’t impede your muscle repair.
If you experience increased pain as time passes or pain that intensifies with certain movements, stop whatever you’re doing and call your doctor. Injury prevention is always key.
Find a helping hand.
Here’s the thing—while getting a massage might sound like a lovely little act of pampering for yourself, after you’ve worked out to the point where your muscles are so sore you can hardly move, a massage may not be relaxing. I’m sorry to break the bad news, but the good news is that even if it’s a grit-your-teeth-and-get-through-it experience, it will help relieve some of your muscle soreness.
A study featured in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that getting a massage does help reduce the intensity of sore muscles after exercise. The theory is that because muscle soreness is caused by all sorts of intense repair processes happening at the cellular level in your muscles, massage might help speed up those processes by increasing circulation and reducing inflammation.
Overall, muscle soreness after an intense workout is not necessarily a bad sign, depending on your workout goals. However, it is important to give your body plenty of time to recover after a workout so your muscles can repair themselves. One study showed that with CrossFit-style workouts (intense exercise focused on weightlifting), taking a rest day not only helps prevent injury but also allows athletes to train more effectively the next time they are in the gym.
The risk of injury if you don't take it easy is very real. If you’re so sore you can barely move your arm, your form is not going to be stellar and you’re more likely to hurt yourself. The ACSM also supports the idea that you will get more out of your next workout and your muscles will be able to operate better if you follow a proper training schedule overseen by a professional who emphasizes at least one or two complete rest days per week.
In the meantime, soak in a hot bath, sip some hot ginger tea, and marvel at your amazing muscles that are working so hard, even if you wish you weren’t feeling them quite so much at the moment.