Too Much?

Written by Danny Singles, PT, DPT, MA. Posted in Excercise.

Excercise your way to better physical healthNice weather inspires an extra mile or two. Cheering at an interval class leads to setting a new personal record with kettlebell swings. An extra hour gardening means the job gets done sooner. Trying kickboxing for the first time? Push it to keep up with the class! Who wants to be left behind? 

All of us have likely been in a situation where we overdid it with our amount, type, or intensity of activity. My favorite way to describe the soreness I feel in my muscles after pushing myself is as follows:  “I feel like someone has beaten my muscles from head to toe with a 2’x4’ plank.” I can still remember a few of the times I was extremely aware of overdoing it. After the Triple Crown Trail Race (a wickedly difficult back-to-back-to-back Half marathon, 10K, 5K in one morning), I was so sore I could barely walk and had to take alternating hot and cold baths so I could feel like a functional human being.  In retrospect, that was probably a little too much for my training at that point. 

Fortunately, while I don’t usually suffer from ‘over-do-it-it is’, I do sometimes push myself and have to deal with the consequences. As James Brown said, “I paid the cost to be the boss.” Depending on your goals, muscle soreness is not unusual to experience after exercise and can even be a useful guide in your training or fitness regimen. 

While sometimes we think of it as just general muscle soreness, in actuality there are two different types of muscle soreness.  The first is more acute and typically of shorter duration. This is what many of my patients experience after a hard PT session. It lasts up to several hours or even a day after their session ends. Some research is beginning to show that this temporary and short-lived soreness is due to the buildup of waste products in our muscles from their use and overuse. Over the time period after exercise, these by-products are slowly flushed out of the muscle and this type of soreness fades with a little bit of rest (typically < 24 hrs).

A second type of muscle soreness can also be present after exercise. This second type, called DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness), can be more uncomfortable and longer lasting. Research is beginning to show that unlike acute muscle soreness, DOMS appears to be caused by the microscopic trauma to muscles that is induced by a strenuous workout or exercise routine. These small microtears in muscle and connective tissue in turn cause inflammation, swelling, and sensitivity within the muscle.  Workouts with a higher emphasis on eccentric loading (controlling a load while the muscle lengthens) vs. concentric loading (shortening a muscle) tend to produce more microtearing and more DOMS.  The DOMS type of muscle soreness typically tends to peak around 24-48 hrs after a workout, but it can vary tremendously.  DOMS from a hard workout can last days – my coworker, for example, couldn’t fully straighten her arm for several days without painful soreness in her biceps after taking an upper body interval weight training class for the first time. 

Both types of muscle soreness (or lack thereof) can be a good thing. The presence of soreness serves a valuable purpose of indicating fatigue. Not being sore after a workout tells you it is safe to progress one of your workout variables. Being too sore means it would probably be wise to take a rest day or days, or back off on the weight (or mileage), intensity, duration, or repetitions. 

It can alert us that muscles are not healed from the microtearing of the previous workout. 
Microtearing is a normal part of exercise and is usually nothing to worry about. All muscle fibers experience this due to the stresses they see during activity. With appropriate recovery and rest, they rebuild even stronger over time. Stronger muscles are better able to handle stress, generate strength, work for longer, and adapt to activities. But when you persist with activity through soreness, microtears can accumulate faster than the body can repair them, which results in overload and injury. If you need help managing muscle soreness, consult a PT, doctor, or other medical professional. How do you know when sore is too sore? The University of Delaware Physical Therapy Department has published a Soreness Rules document that can help guide you in your workouts. Check it out, but this is not a substitute for the professional advice that only a trained and educated health professional can give you.

Now, you might think that achieving significant muscle soreness is a worthy goal. Indeed, the soreness of well-worked muscles is something many fitness junkies crave (picture every 1980’s fitness instructor you can imagine shouting “Feel the burn!”). To them, it might mean they have worked their muscles hard enough to build them up. In actuality, the research doesn’t yet exist to show that this is the case. If you are really looking to gain strength, lose weight, or achieve another fitness goal, your best bet is to work with a trained professional, not push yourself to the breaking point with every workout. Guess what? If you do insist on approaching things like that, you’ll eventually break. Muscles that are sore and painful from a previous workout should not be re-traumatized with an additional hard workout. 

Try some rest and recovery days before “just enough” becomes “too much.” Given time, muscles will adapt to exercise stress placed on them. Strength gains will happen. But this occurs at a different pace for everyone. How long your soreness lasts post-exercise is a good indicator of when it is time to rest. As always, it is important to consult a medical professional before beginning a new workout routine. 


Brad J. Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras, “Is Postexercise Muscle Soreness a Valid Indicator of Muscular Adaptations?” Strength and Conditioning Journal, vol. 35 No. 5 pp. 16-21 (2013).

University of Delaware Physical Therapy Department, “Soreness Rules.”
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